NAACP condemns tax breaks given by unelected bodies in Chattanooga, Hamilton County

NAACP condemns tax breaks given by unelected bodies in Chattanooga, Hamilton County

August 1st, 2014 by Ellis Smith and Louie Brogdon in Business Around the Region

James R. Mapp speaks at Jubilee Day 2013 in this file photo.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

The NAACP on Thursday blasted a number of local tax incentives offered to developers and corporations as undermining a "grand pillar of democracy."

James Mapp, president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP, said property tax breaks offered to businesses by the city and county don't receive enough public scrutiny, pointing out that the Chamber of Commerce that negotiates such breaks and the industrial development boards that facilitate such deals are not elected.

Mapp fingered such agreements for "mass displacement," "crime," and "homelessness," and said the resulting minority vote dilution was a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Industrial Development Boards are not merely rubber-stamp committees and should not be used merely to bypass federal and state law," Mapp said. "Their chief function is to be able to recommend to local government the answers to [three] questions, namely, "What is the public purpose? What is the public benefit? What is the public cost?"

Officials pointed out several mistakes in Mapp's missive, including misidentifying the Black Creek Mountain development and the Miller Park proposal -- both of which still receive some type support from taxpayers -- as receiving property tax breaks through the industrial development board.

The Black Creek Mountain development received $9 million in tax increment financing, not a PILOT or payment-in-lieu of tax agreement. Miller Park is being revamped with direct expenditures from the city's coffers, not through any PILOT agreement.

That aside, the public purpose of such agreements is to create jobs, which in turn tend to eliminate displacement, crime and homelessness, said Chamber of Commerce CEO Ron Harr.

"We stand by our belief that creating jobs in our community is the best way to solve a long list of social problems," Harr said.

Donna C Williams, administrator of economic and community development for the city of Chattanooga, said she is willing to talk with Mapp and other local NAACP officials about their questions and concerns.

"The purpose of the Affordable Housing PILOT is to incent developers to designate a percentage of their downtown developments' housing units as affordable," she said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he hadn't seen the NAACP letter -- or ever heard opposition to tax breaks and other incentive packages from the NAACP. But generally, he said the deals were made to keep Hamilton County growing.

"We do PILOT agreements and offer incentives because we are generally in intense competition with other cities, or other places in the country of the world," he said. "Some of these companies are global."

And the county has seen dividends, he said.

"In the last three and a half years that I've been here, we have created 9,800 new jobs and had over $1.1 billion of investments made in our county, and a lot of this is a result of these PILOT agreements," Coppinger said. "And a lot of these jobs are for people in our community."

Answering Mapp's claim that the process lacks transparency, Coppinger acknowledged much of the negotiations are closed to the public. But he said the final proposal are voted on, and discussed, in public.

"No matter what's negotiated, it goes back to the legislative bodies, the county and the commission," he said. "And there's a two-week lag there for public comment, so they're done in the public view."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.