Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Google got millions in tax breaks for new plants, but locals often didn't know until it was too late to do anything about it

Washington Post map by Aaron Steckelberg
Google got millions in tax incentives as it open new offices and data centers across the country — some of them rural — and often without the prior knowledge of communities' residents. That's because Google generally demanded secrecy from developers and city officials when negotiating contracts, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports for The Washington Post.

"Google — which has risen to become one of the world’s most valuable companies by transforming the public’s ability to access information — has vastly expanded its geographic footprint over the past decade, building more than 15 data centers on three continents and 70 offices worldwide," Dwoskin reports. "But that development spree has often been shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible for some communities to know, let alone protest or debate, who is using their land, their resources and their tax dollars until after the fact."

In one example, officials in Midlothian, Tex., a community of about 18,000 near Dallas, approved more than $10 million in tax breaks to Google last May for a new data center. But locals didn't know until it was a done deal. Travis Smith, managing editor of the local paper, the Waxahachie Daily Light, told Dwoskin that "I’m confident that had the community known this project was under the direction of Google, people would have spoken out, but we were never given the chance to speak . . . We didn’t know that it was Google until after it passed."

Many rural residents would likely welcome a big new employer, but others are wary of the potential disruption to the community, increased traffic and home prices, environmental impact. And some don't want to offer such huge subsidies to companies that already have substantial financial clout, Dwoskin reports.

Google isn't the only big corporation to employ such tactics (or receive such a response). Amazon was widely criticized for requiring extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements when seeking a site for its second headquarters. "Some New York lawmakers were so outraged by the secrecy of Amazon’s process that they have introduced bills that would ban nondisclosure agreements for development projects in the city and state," Dwoskin reports.

Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in state and local government law, told Dwoskin that it's important to keep the public informed about such negotiations. "Public transparency laws are designed to keep the public interest at the contract table, and the way you do that is with information."

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