A Good Day for Subsidy Transparency: Franklin County, Ohio Touts New Tax Incentives Hub
By Kasia Tarczynska
July 14, 2021
Transparency is a cornerstone of economic development. It allows the public to know where funds are being invested, what companies benefit from tax breaks, and if they do the good things corporate leaders and elected officials say they will.
That’s why we were so cheered to see Franklin County, Ohio's new website that lifts the veil of secrecy that so often shrouds economic development subsidies. Tax Incentives Hub includes comprehensive information on subsidies, breaking down costs by localities and governmental agencies. Recipient names are also provided for major programs.
It’s one of the best subsidy transparency websites we have come across over our years of digging. This is especially good news as localities lag the states on subsidy transparency.
The easy-to-use website contains costs data for a wide variety of programs Franklin County uses to offset business costs: Tax Increment Financing, Enterprise Zones, Community Reinvestment Areas or CRA, and Current Agricultural Use Value, or CAUV (which reduces property taxes for farms. Dig a little, and you can see that the cost of corporate abatements was $116 million in 2020 across all jurisdictions and agencies; TIF’s diverted added another $109 million.
The Tax Incentives Hub also provides data on lost revenue to other agencies that lost money as a result of corporate subsidies. The figures are staggering. For example, in 2020 the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities lost $27.2 million. The Franklin County Children Services lost $19.3 million. Even the Columbus Zoo lost revenue: $2.8 million.
But no public services lost as much as public schools: $97.3 million in 2020. Good Jobs First has been focused on collecting and analyzing data on lost revenue to school districts across the country.
The Hub also allows users to download spreadsheets with subsidy recipients and accompanying maps include recipient locations. One such recipient is Vadata (now Amazon Web Services), Amazon’s subsidiary that owns and operates data centers. The company’s abatement via CRA was $60.3 million in 2020. This is a troublesome for a few reasons.
First, the cost of the abatement is huge, as is its 15-year duration. Second, data centers do not create a significant number of jobs, so few residents will find employment here. Third, Amazon has experienced tremendous growth and profits during the pandemic while small businesses have been struggling to stay open.
This begs a question, who deserves public support more: Amazon, or your local restaurant?
Cash-strapped communities have limited funds, and local leaders have great authority to decide how to spend the public money with which they are entrusted. Are they spending it right? Sunshine helps all of us answer that question.
“The only way to know if [subsidies] are working as advertised is through transparency,” Michael Stinziano, the County’s auditor, said in an opinion for The Columbus Dispatch. “My goal as your Franklin County Auditor is to provide complete information about every tax incentive in use, so you can judge for yourselves whether that tax incentive in your neighborhood and community is worth it.”
Now Franklin County residents can make that judgment for themselves. We urge communities everywhere to follow Stinziano’s lead in making that information easily accessible for their residents. It’s good public policy and lets well-informed people decide whether large companies like Amazon should get precious resources, or it would be better suited to, for example, train workers for jobs of tomorrow.