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Presiding commissioner candidates find common ground on economic incentives

Monday, October 25, 2010 | 6:12 p.m. CDT; updated 10:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 28, 2010

COLUMBIA — The race for Boone County presiding commissioner has been politicized this year, but it appears Democrat J. Scott Christianson and Republican Ed Robb have found something to agree on. Both give praise and support to the county's use of economic incentives to attract business and industry.

To date, Boone County's preferred strategy has been to use Chapter 100 bonds, which are named after the set of state statutes that authorize them.

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The Chapter 100 program allows cities and counties to issue bonds that finance the purchase of real or personal property on behalf of a business entity. Because the government is involved in the purchase of the property, it can be exempt from some or all sales and property taxes. Under Boone County's specific policy, the business, in return, usually makes a payment of 50 percent or more of the exempted taxes to governments entities that are affected. That includes cities, counties, and school, library and fire districts.

These bonds have been offered to several companies, but only ABC Labs has accepted them. CEO Byron Hill said these bonds were the "absolute key" to his company staying in the area when it embarked on an expansion in 2006.

"If Boone County hadn't made their Chapter 100 award to us, we wouldn't have opened our location at Discovery Ridge, and we wouldn't have expanded in Boone County," Hill said. He said Columbia and Boone County were competing with Omaha, Neb., Gainesville, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y., as well as several Missouri cities.

ABC Labs was offered a large incentive package that included several state programs, but the state will not step in unless there is local support, Hill said.

The county offered these bonds for this project because it fit into the criteria outlined in its Chapter 100 policy. Christianson said the six-page document targets the life-science industry and other high-tech ventures.

He would like to expand this to explicitly include data center projects similar to IBM. Christianson said Columbia could become a center for that industry since it has several things those businesses want, such as an educated workforce and good access to telecommunications.

IBM was offered Chapter 100 bonds as part of a large incentive package, but they did not accept them. Instead, the company accepted about $31 million of state and local incentives.

Although Boone County has only given these bonds to ABC Labs, Christianson said he doesn't think county officials need to be more aggressive.

"I think that the conservative approach to this policy pays off," he said. "We use it to bring in high-quality jobs that offer net benefits to the community."

Dave Griggs, chairman of Regional Economic Development Inc., holds a similar view. He said Missouri's neighbors have taken more extreme measures to attract business, but that's not necessarily the best method.

"You can't just give the farm away," he said. "It doesn't work that way."

Robb, who supported legislation establishing the Chapter 100 bonds program while he was a state representative, approves of how the bonds are used, but he wants Boone County officials to brainstorm other ideas and look at other cities' strategies for encouraging development.

Most incentive plans would have to pass at the state level before Boone County could use them, Robb said. The county doesn't have a charter government, so it relies on the state for legal authority to pass ordinances and to grant economic incentives, among other things.

This is one reason why Robb supports a limited county constitution.

"When you come right down to it, we can't come up with a tax credit I don't think," Robb said.

Christianson said he would be open to discussing other means of providing incentives. One idea is a sales tax that could generate money specifically to fund economic development efforts. Robb said he would need more specifics about such a sales tax. He isn't sure how the money would be used and would want to ensure the benefits of the tax would be far greater than its cost to taxpayers.

Griggs, who was Northern District commissioner in 1989-90, said the word "incentives" was unspoken 20 years ago. He and ABC Labs' Hill, who is a past chairman of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said that mentality changed once Columbia began competing more with other towns.

"You've got to have a package that is competitive and attractive, or you don't get to sit down at the table," Griggs said.


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