State panel continues tradition of secrecy in awarding incentives

February 2, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

A state panel Thursday approved an unspecified amount of taxpayer-backed incentives for at least 12 “confidential” economic development projects across South Carolina.

The projects, identified only by code numbers, are located in Aiken, Berkeley, Clarendon, Greenwood, Hampton, Marion, Orangeburg, Sumter and York counties, according to an Enterprise Program Committee meeting agenda.

The committee is part of the Coordinating Council for Economic Development (CCED), an 11-member group made up of the directors or board chairpersons of state agencies involved with economic development, and by law chaired by S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt.

The council has typically met behind closed doors in Commerce’s headquarters on the 16th floor of an office high-rise building across from the State House to discuss what incentives will be given to companies planning to locate or expand in South Carolina.

That included, for example, about $38 million in grants awarded in 2014 for the Giti Tire plant project in Chester County. The Nerve reported then that Commerce wouldn’t immediately make public the official CCED meeting minutes, and later reported that the released minutes made no specific mention of the grant amount, though Commerce and other officials had previously confirmed it.

The Nerve also revealed in 2012 that the projected state and local costs of incentives deals for a Continental tire plant in Sumter County were at least $237 million over 10 years, and also reported then that state incentives for a Bridgestone tire manufacturing project in Aiken County would total at least $57 million over 10 years.

Asked to identify the types and amounts of incentives approved Thursday by the CCED’s Enterprise Program Committee for the unidentified projects, Commerce spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell in an email to The Nerve said those agenda items are “confidential economic development projects, so all we can say is that they were approved for JDCs (job development credits), but the amount will depend on wages of jobs and number created.”

Job development credits are rebates of a portion of employee wage withholdings. Factors affecting the amount of those credits that eligible companies can claim include the number of jobs created, the level of wages paid, and the location of the company. The tax break can total millions over time.

Fairwell cited exemptions in the state Freedom of Information Act that she said legally allowed the Enterprise Program Committee to keep secret the identities of the companies approved to receive the incentives, and specifics about those incentives. State incentives agreements revealing those details typically aren’t released publicly until after they are finalized, which often can be months after the incentives are approved.

Thursday’s meeting also included an update on listed “confidential” port-credit applications, which Fairwell noted contain “taxpayer confidential information that is protected from disclosure.”

The Enterprise Program Committee approved the issuance of economic development revenue bonds for two listed “non-confidential” projects: the construction of a 40,000-square-foot facility for Aiken Memory Care in Aiken County, and the expansion of Ridgeland Pellets’ manufacturing facility in Jasper County.

Those projects were approved by the state Jobs-Economic Development Authority before coming to the Coordinating Council, Fairwell said. The full council delegated authority to its Enterprise Program Committee to approve the job development credits and port applications for the other listed “confidential” projects because “they needed to be approved more frequently and timely than once a quarter,” she said.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter.