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COLUMN: IBM 'public hearing' mix of mutual congratulation, unanswered questions

Thursday, May 27, 2010 | 12:55 p.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our City Council held Monday evening what was billed as a public hearing on the IBM deal. In fact, we ordinary citizens were outnumbered by the insiders; and what we heard was mainly a mix of after-the-fact explanation and mutual congratulation.

There were, however, a few pointed questions from Councilman Paul Sturtz and several cautionary comments from that indefatigable public citizen, John Clark. I was left hoping that Ed Robb’s rosy revenue projections prove accurate. The Missourian has done a good job of reporting the highlights of the deal, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.

We don’t know, for example, whether Columbia’s experience will more closely match developments in Dubuque, Iowa, or East Lansing, Mich., the locations of IBM’s first two similar operations. We’re told that in Dubuque’s first year about 800 of a projected 1,300 workers have been hired. In East Lansing, where IBM began operations on the Michigan State University campus last September, only 70 people currently are working. The company is now “looking to hire several hundred information technology specialists over the next five years,” according to the Detroit Free Press of April 25.

In Dubuque, the only problem of note has been a shortage of rental apartments for the new IBMers. That shouldn’t be a problem here, but it raises an important unknown. Just where will the Columbia office’s workers come from? The announced expectations seem somewhat contradictory.

Will most of the hires come from this area? That appears to be the hope. REDI’s Mike Brooks estimated that 90 percent will come from the region. Another hope is that newcomers will buy 250 to 300 new houses. The city is projecting $700,000 in additional property taxes. I have trouble reconciling those expectations.

John Clark pointed out that nobody has talked publicly about the added costs of providing the services that will be needed by our new neighbors. To take just one, if 200 new families do arrive to buy those hoped-for houses and if each of those families has just 1.5 children, that would exceed the enrollment of Ridgeway or Two Mile Prairie elementary schools. Presumably, they’ll also want streets and sewers and police and fire protection. Their taxes won’t cover those costs.

I don’t mean to suggest that our civic leaders should have spurned IBM. None of Monday’s questioners argued that, either. What Councilman Sturtz, former councilman Karl Skala and John Clark all did raise was the concern that secret negotiations leave the community with too many doubts.

As far as I could tell, the only speaker who’d qualify as a truly private citizen was a retired educator named Joan Beard. Her question, I thought, was a good one: “Where’s the transparency?”

The answer from Mike Brooks and others was reasonable but not sufficient. Deals like this are always done in secret. That’s the way business is conducted. This was a competition, and you don’t tell your competitors your plans. That’s all true, as far as it goes.

The city is a business of a different sort. We elect our board of directors. That board, the City Council, wasn’t much involved or much informed. At least some of the questions raised Monday might more usefully have been raised before the 90-page ordinance had been drafted.

Transparency in situations like this doesn’t have to mean that negotiations are attempted in public meetings. It should, however, mean that our elected representatives are given the opportunity to ask their questions – and do their duty – before the deal is struck.

If the list of REDI prospects Mike Martin posted last week on The Columbia Heart Beat blog is even close to accurate, there’ll be another deal before long. Next time, council members should be in on the negotiations. All the important questions should be answered before we celebrate.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

 


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Comments

Ellis Smith May 27, 2010 | 4:02 p.m.

Well, Mr. Kennedy, what we may have here is validation of a very old saying. What saying would that be?

"Ya pays yur money and ya takes yur chances."

I too would like to see this work out, but there's this other old saying about counting one's chickens before they are hatched.

(Report Comment)
a b May 29, 2010 | 11:26 a.m.
This comment has been removed.

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