The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday postponed its discussion and vote on proposed guidelines on how the governing body should weigh requests from industries seeking multi-million-dollar tax breaks.
That decision came at the request of Councilman LaMont Cole, who wants to give the public and the council more time to review the proposed local standards for approving property tax break requests through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
“We’ve been working diligently on these guidelines (and) we’re almost to where we need to be,” Cole said. He said he hasn't had the opportunity to talk to Councilman Chandler Loupe, whom Cole dubbed “the expert of all things ITEP."
Cole added: "After I do that this week, I think we’ll be in a position to move forward.”
Members of the faith-based group Together Baton Rouge, whose members have been outspoken critics of the tax break program, waved their requests to speak on the proposed standards at Wednesday’s meeting.
TBR leader Broderick Bagert said the organization isn’t ready to comment yet because members haven’t had a chance to review the proposed standards. But he expressed some initial concerns over the guidelines, which he thinks has hardly any teeth to them
TBR has been pushing for more-stringent guidelines regarding the industrial tax exemption approvals through local tax authorities.
“Hopefully we’ll get to something that maybe not everyone likes, but everyone can live with,” Bagert said after the meeting.
According to the proposed guidelines released Wednesday morning, the Metro Council would give its nod for property tax relief requests to any industrial facilities that are new to the parish or any expansion projects at existing facilities as long as those projects create additional permanent, full-time jobs.
The Metro Council also could approve the tax breaks as long as the projects provide environmental benefits or meet any of the other special circumstances spelled out in the proposed guidelines.
Cole, who has been working alongside Councilman Matt Watson on the standards, indicated their conversations have been productive.
During an interview before the meeting, Watson said TBR had misrepresented the work he and Cole did trying to iron out the guidelines. Watson noted that TBR, in an email circulated to draw its supporters to the public hearing, had called the proposals “another attempt to rubber-stamp corporate tax exemptions, sight unseen.”
Watson said he, Cole, the mayor's office, Together Baton Rouge, Republicans and Democrats on the council, and the Louisiana Economic Development Department worked together on the guidelines, which Watson said "will probably serve as an example of best practice for other parishes.”
The guidelines come two weeks after the Metro Council unanimously approved ExxonMobil's request for a 10-year property tax break on its polyolefins plant expansion.
The Industrial Tax Exemption Program is designed to give manufacturers a temporary break on their property taxes on new capital expenditures.
East Baton Rouge Parish officials have waded slowly through their newfound authority over the tax breaks, an authority Gov. John Bel Edwards gave to local governments in a 2016 executive order amending the state program.
The set of proposed guidelines says the Metro Council is endorsing the rules adopted by the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry which limit ITEP tax breaks at 80 percent abatements over 10-year periods.
"Recognizing that these rules are to promote job creation and spur economic development in the parish, the council shall approve those projects which are found by LED's return investment analysis to produce a positive return on investment," the proposed guidelines read.
Even without producing new full-time jobs, industries could get approvals from the council if they assure city-parish leaders that during the 10 years of the tax break they wouldn't close or relocate the site to another parish or state, or if they could give the parish a "substantive competitive advantage" or provide some environmental benefit.
During conversations about the guidelines in March, Cole introduced a formula that focused on giving incentives to companies to hire locally in order to get ITEP abatements — proposals Bagert called a “bare-boned” compromise to what TBR wanted.
“Initially our recommendations had local hiring requirements, much higher job requirements, a cap on the amount of subsidies based on per job requirements, and a living wage component," Bagert said. "That’s why, when you move from that to something that says, ‘we’ll approve everything,’ we don’t know at this point.”
Watson and East Baton Rouge School Board member Mike Gaudet unveiled proposals in March that aligned closer to recommendations from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, but were criticized for being more favorable to large capital projects.