EDITORIAL: Incentives guidelines: Necessary, not evil

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

The two words found most frequently in any dialogue involving economic incentives are “necessary” and “evil.”

Most often, of course, they’re combined — as in: “We don’t like the idea of offering incentives to any industry seeking to relocate or expand here, but it’s a necessary evil. If we want to be competitive, we have to level the playing field.”

In other words, Everyone else is doing it, so we have to join in.

Occasionally you’ll find other words used in conjunction with incentives: “bribe,” “theft,” “feeding from the public trough,” and, of course, the stand-alone “evil.” Alarmists wave legions of red flags when talk comes to offering industries and businesses incentives, which are usually (in North Carolina, at least) provided in the form of rebates of half of a company’s property tax expense over a defined period of time, and tied to things like job creation and amount of capital investment. It’s the proverbial carrot, and the practice is so widely done (in fact, it’s not only legal, it’s encouraged by the state) that to not work to entice potential large-scale investment in a geographic area is considered — by some, at least — economic malpractice.

Over the last few years, Lee County Commissioners have struggled as a group to come to grips with the incentives question. Factions on opposite ends of the incentives issue have trotted out data that supports incentives and condemns them, but from what we’ve seen, the commissioners have largely demonstrated a willingness to at least engage in reasonable discussion about the merits of incentives, and they seem to understand the necessity — “evil” though it may be — of using incentives as a recruitment tool. Lee County has a lot to offer prospective industry and business, but ponying up with tax savings — as any other county would do — has to be included.

In recent years, the board’s displeasure with the Lee County EDC (Economic Development Corporation) and the county’s unemployment rate have ramped up. And in recent weeks, they’ve turned their collective attention toward updating the county’s incentives guidelines. Although the process is far from over — commissioners haven’t taken formal action on an incentives policy — a working draft of economic incentives guidelines put together by County Manager John Crumpton has been making the rounds. Commissioner Robert Reives asked for input from the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce and the EDC, and the city of Sanford and town of Broadway have also been asked to chime in, along with others. (Various versions of the draft guidelines can be found on The Herald’s website, www.sanfordherald.com.)

Sharing in the creation and development of those guidelines is a very, very good thing. We suspect the final product, which will likely give the commissioners a bit more flexibility in granting incentives, won’t meet with everyone’s absolute approval. But buy-in has a greater chance of occurring because of the inclusive way the commissioners are choosing to approach the task.

It makes Lee County even that much more attractive.