Charlotte spends millions to attract jobs, but gets failing grade on transparency


By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer

Charlotte has an ambitious program to spend tax dollars to land new jobs. But when it comes to revealing information about its incentive programs, the city gets a failing grade, according to a national study.

The Washington D.C.-based group, Good Jobs First, ranked the nation’s 50 largest cities on how much they share with the public about their economic incentive programs. In Charlotte, the city often gives companies tax rebates in exchange for a company relocating to the city or an existing company adding jobs.

The incentives have been used for companies such as Siemens, Electrolux, Chiquita and Republic Services, the trash company. Since 1998, the city and Mecklenburg County have spent $55 million on property tax rebates to land new jobs.

But the report is highly critical of the city for not making information readily available on its website.

Good Jobs First said Charlotte is tied for “dead last” among the 50 biggest cities and counties. It said the city received a “zero” score for failing to disclose even the names of companies receiving subsidies.

“The public should be able to examine the allocation of public money through an equity lens: who is getting public money, for what purpose, where is money being invested, and what is the benefit to the local community?” the report said.

The group said local governments should provide basic information, including the address of a facility that receives subsidies. Providing the address allows people to know whether the business is near public transit – or whether the firm is locating in a low-income area where people need jobs, the report said.

Good Jobs First also said it’s important that governments provide information on the average pay for the subsidized jobs.

“Taxpayers have a right to know if a subsidized company pays so little that its employees remain dependent on social safety net programs (i.e., food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, housing or heating assistance, etc.) or if an employer pays good wages that can fully support a family,” the report said. “Having wage data is also critical to measuring the true costs and benefits of subsidy deals.”

Since the recession, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have changed their incentive program and are offering subsidies for companies whose average wage is below the area’s average salary, which is just under $49,000.

The city and county have offered subsidies for call center jobs that pay an average of $33,000 and manufacturing jobs that pay less than $30,000.

The city’s and county’s information on subsidies is not off limits to the public, but it’s not easy to find.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have released such information to the Observer after the newspaper made public records requests. The incentives are also voted on in open session, and the agenda items offer some basic information, such as the average salary of the new jobs.

Pat Mumford heads the city’s Business Services office, which oversees the city’s economic development programs. He said the city is already considering ways to report more information about its jobs programs, including the success rates.

“We will pursue for that to be more open,” he said. “We aren’t hiding (the information). We just haven’t been as proactive as the study suggests we should be. We will investigate how to do that.”

The report said other cities, including Columbus, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Miami; Philadelphia and Portland had failing grades.