TESTING THE BREAKS: Officials ponder new standards for developers


An explosion in construction of large warehouses in the western part of the county — especially those built on speculation — has forced county leaders to re-appraise the process for approving abatements for such projects.

GREENFIELD — Hancock County is considering adding additional standards for companies that want to be considered for a tax abatement, but officials can’t agree on what exactly the standards should look like.

At a joint meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 3, county commissioners and council members discussed a potential new questionnaire that would seek more information from developers asking for their taxes to be abated. While the county currently collects some information from such developers before considering a request, the new version would ask for more specifics.

County financial adviser Greg Guerrettaz, who helped draft an initial version of the document, said he will continue working on a solution that addresses all the officials’ concerns.

“We’ve got to have benefits for the taxpayers, and we’re got to have benefits for the developers,” he said.

In a draft version presented at the meeting, developers would need to sign off on an economic development agreement that includes payments for county infrastructure, fire and police protection and schools. They would promise not to appeal their assessed property value unless it increases by at least 5%. Those creating speculative buildings would agree to provide an annual update on how it’s being used or, if it is vacant, why it hasn’t been leased.

The application also seeks information on potential projects above and beyond what the county currently receives. Developers would need to include a rendering and aerial map of the proposed building, plus information about construction materials. They’d also be asked about any additional incentives they are seeking for the project.

Developers of buildings set to be owner-occupied would also answer a series of questions about the number and compensation of employees that would be added.

Some county officials would like to see similar questions posed to developers who are hoping to build speculative buildings. These projects are not built for use by the company that owns them and are instead leased out to other businesses. A developer creating a speculative building doesn’t know who exactly will occupy the space, although they may have an idea of a tenant who they know is considering moving to the area.

Speculative buildings are the subject of much controversy in Hancock County; council members and commissioners have objected to the number built in the western part of the county, some of which are still vacant, and have expressed reluctance to grant any more abatements to speculative projects.

Council member Jeannine Gray said that if the county is going to approve tax abatements, they need to know enough to make an educated decision.

“Right now, the western border of the county is overwhelmed with speculative buildings,” she said.

Council member Mary Noe said developers of speculative buildings should take some responsibility for the jobs and wages offered by their eventual tenants. She’d like to see them provide an annual update on those numbers just like a company would for an owner-occupied building.

Without that request, Noe said, the county isn’t collecting data on the pay offered at most of the sites it has approved for tax abatements.

Other officials don’t see a reason to alter the county’s current process.

“I like the previous application, and I’m not sure there’s any reason to change it,” council member Jim Shelby said.

Council president Bill Bolander also said he wasn’t too concerned about the wages that would be offered at new local warehouses, even if they were built as speculative buildings. With local employers including Amazon offering wages over $15 an hour, he said, there’s no reason to think compensation won’t be comparable at other facilities.

Commissioner Marc Huber agreed, saying the county shouldn’t demand that local employers offer a wage higher than the state and federal minimum, although it is of course a positive thing to attract high-paying jobs.

“The market’s going to take care of a lot of things,” Huber said.

Noe said that while pay is high in the county now, an economic downturn could create circumstances where that isn’t the case. She said she thinks the county government should help make sure people working in Hancock County can make a living wage without needing government assistance.

According to data presented by Noe at a September meeting, the county then had 27 real property building abatements currently running, 18 of which were on buildings built as speculative. Seven were built to be occupied by the owner, and two use a “sale-lease-back” arrangement.

Nineteen of those buildings were fully occupied, four had no tenant in place, and four were partially occupied.