Another voice: Subsidizing Server Farms in Iowa

Iowa throws a lot of money at the server farm industry, even though the state’s assets would make it attractive for the industry even without lucrative subsidies.

by Kasia Tarczynska, Good Jobs First

Facebook just announced a third expansion of its $1.5 billion data center in Iowa. This followed a similar move by Google for its server farm in the state. These developments are fruits of the effort by officials to encourage big-name tech companies to locate in Iowa. This private investment, however, does not come free. For example, the $1 billion Google expansion is supported by $19.8 million in state subsidies. Since 2007, Iowa has offered almost $100 million in state tax credits and refunds to Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Google data center facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Credit: Google

Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Image via Google

Subsidies to server farms raise a lot of questions and controversy.  A key issue is whether the tech companies should get subsidies at all, given that their location decisions are based primarily on the availability of cheap electricity (preferably renewable), plenty of land, cooler climate, access to water, and lack of natural disasters. These make places like Iowa seem a natural choice.

Because data centers are capital intensive projects, they usually create a small number of jobs and thus per-job subsidies tend to be quite large.

Despite these factors, Iowa still throws lots of money at the industry.  Here is a quick look at Iowa’s subsidies to the three tech giants:

Google, located in Council Bluffs

2007- The company received $1.4 million in state tax credits and $48 million in local property tax abatements. Google was the first big-name tech company to locate a data center in the state.

2013 – The Iowa Economic Development Authority approved another $16.8 million in tax credits for a second Google facility.

2015 – The company received an additional $19.8 million in state sales and use tax refund for an expansion. Google will also pay only 20 percent of local property taxes for 5 years.

Altogether, Google promised to invest $2.5 billion but create just 70 jobs.

Microsoft, located in West Des Moines

Microsoft’s state subsidies started on a small scale, $568,000 in 2008 and $131,242 in 2011.

2013 – The company was awarded $20 million from the state’s High Quality Jobs Tax Credit program for a $679 million investment.

2014 – EDA approved $20.3 million in state tax credits to Microsoft for another round of expansion. The city chipped in $18 million for construction and infrastructure improvements on the site. $3.5 million in Tax Increment Financing was committed to build a water facility that will be used by Microsoft, and others, to cool servers.

Facebook, located in Altoona

2013 – After an intense and secretive competition with Nebraska, Iowa won Facebook’s server farm.  The company was approved for $18 million in tax credits for creating 31 jobs and investing $1.5 billion (the EDA report lists Facebook under Siculus, Inc, a Facebook initiative). The company also enjoys discounted water rates and has received money through Tax Increment Financing.

There is one additional thing that stands out: Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are rich tech companies that easily can afford any costs related to construction and operation of those server farms.  As one journalist put it: “Google needs a tax break like Bill Gates needs food stamps.”

Kasia Tarczynska is a research analyst at Good Jobs First, http://www.goodjobsfirst.org. She has a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This blog originally appeared on the Good Jobs First blog at this link.
Good Jobs First is a national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families.

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Iowa could provide an incentive that Illinois could not — and doubled down on it anyway, at a cost of $1.5 million per job.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The enormous package of state and local incentives provided to the Egyptian company Orascom to locate a fertilizer plant in Lee County has drawn considerable attention. The package includes $110 million in state tax credits and other incentives and $133 million in local tax abatements — a total of $243 million when all is said and done. All this to attract a plant that will employ just 165 workers.

At a cost per worker of nearly $1.5 million, the incentive is an astounding amount, well beyond the normal range of awards, in Iowa or anywhere else. (While the company claims a large number of ancillary jobs will follow, these claims are unverifiable, and it is not clear how many would even fall to Iowa residents; furthermore, there are always some spin-off jobs with any project, so the valid comparison with other awards is in terms of cost per direct job.)

Yet little attention has been paid to what is possibly the largest incentive provided: tax-exempt bonds, not even included in the above calculations.

Early on in the negotiations, in fact last April, the Iowa Finance Authority awarded Orascom up to $1.19 billion in Midwest Disaster Area (MDA) bonds. These bonds are exempt from federal income tax; Midwestern states affected by the 2008 flood were each given an allocation of these bonds to be awarded to projects in eligible counties — those declared disaster areas after the flood. The $1.19 billion loan would constitute 46 percent of the Iowa allocation.

Because the interest is exempt from federal income tax, the wealthy individuals and financial institutions that would purchase such bonds will accept a lower interest rate than they would require on taxable corporate bonds. The after-tax rate is what they focus on. This means that the company saves money. How much? That depends on the spread between corporate bond interest rates and tax-exempt rates.

Information from officials at the Iowa Finance Authority indicates that the spread would likely range from 1 percent to 2 percent. For a $1.19 billion bond issue to be repaid in equal annual installments over a 20-year period, the savings in interest would amount to between $153 million and $297 million, depending on what the interest rate differential turned out to be.

These tax-exempt bonds could have been used in Lee County or in Scott County; both were flood disaster areas and both, at one point, were under consideration as a location for the fertilizer plant. When the Scott County site was rejected, attention turned to Illinois, specifically the area near Peoria. But neither Peoria County nor any counties surrounding it were eligible for the Illinois allocation of MDA bonds.

This means that Lee County was starting with a huge advantage over the Illinois site: the availability of an incentive probably worth in the neighborhood of $200 million.

While the MDA bonds cost federal taxpayers, there is no loss of Iowa income-tax revenue. (The federal cost comes because the federal government forgoes income-tax revenue on the interest, which must then be made up by the rest of federal taxpayers.) But the point is that, whoever bears the cost, this was a very large incentive that Iowa could provide and Illinois could not.

Thus it raises the question: Given this advantage from the start, why was it necessary for the state of Iowa and Lee County to double down and provide another $200 plus million, especially when the Illinois tax incentives were not even a reality — they had passed the Illinois Senate, but not the House, and the Legislature had adjourned months ago?

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Does Iowa know when to walk away?

You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Iowa Development Waters Still Safe for Pirates

Anti-piracy provisions newly incorporated into Iowa’s TIF law need to be implemented for all economic development subsidies.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) just announced that it has awarded $304,000 in state tax incentives to Putco Inc. to move from Story City to a location about 35 miles away in Polk County. The Polk County Board of Supervisors will hear a proposal on Wednesday that the board add $363,000 in tax abatements to the incentive package.

Why is the state helping to finance the piracy of jobs from one place to another in Iowa? This is not economic development for the state, and in fact appears to be counter to any reasonable interpretation of state law.

The Iowa Code, Chapter 15A.1 (2), dealing with economic development, states that “funds should not be used to attract a business presently located within the state to relocate to another portion of the state unless the business is considering in good faith to relocate outside the state or unless the relocation is related to an expansion which will generate significant new job creation.”

According to  The Des Moines Register, the alternative under consideration by Putco, a manufacturer of car and truck accessories, was a new site in the Story City area, not out of state. Furthermore, the IEDA project report shows no “jobs retained,” as there would be if an out-of-state move had been threatened.

And the new jobs to be created? Five. Over the past 10 years, almost 84,000 new jobs were created every year by establishments expanding in Iowa. Against that number, how in the world can five jobs be judged a “significant” addition?

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has argued previously, the “new jobs” exception in Iowa’s anti-piracy statute is so vague as to constitute a loophole large enough to drive a moving van through. In fact, the Iowa Legislature apparently agreed with this assessment. The Tax Increment Financing reform bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor includes an anti-piracy provision devoid of any job expansion loophole; a move is a move.

Firms will still move facilities from time to time, but they need not be subsidized by taxpayers to do so, as was the case with the $18 million or more provided by Coralville to entice Von Maur away from another location in Johnson County. Such moves won’t be subsidized by TIF subsidies anymore.

Unfortunately, the basic anti-piracy statute that applies to all economic development subsidies, quoted above, was not amended, leaving state agencies and local governments free to interpret “significant job creation” as loosely as they please, for any subsidies other than TIF. One wonders what the folks at IEDA feel is the limit. Three jobs? One job? Given the rather wobbly record of firms receiving state incentives in the past — job creation targets are often not met — it is quite possible that in the end this move will result in no net increase in jobs at all, above the 40 currently employed in Story City, or even a loss in jobs if the new facility is more automated and firm sales fail to meet expectations.

So it appears that taxpayer-subsidized piracy is alive and well in Iowa. The restrictions newly incorporated into TIF law need to be made part of the general law on economic development subsidies. If property tax payers should be protected from such abuse of public funds, why not state taxpayers generally?

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

The need for TIF reform

Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF.

Peter Fisher speaks at TIF forum
IPP Research Director Peter Fisher speaks at a forum on tax-increment financing as Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, look on.

Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) painted a picture of a program that has become a monster. I encourage all to find the report on our website, or to view the forum in Coralville hosted by the bipartisan team of Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello.

It takes some folks out of their comfort zone — apparently former Iowa City Council Member Bob Elliott among them in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen — to see what an otherwise well-intentioned and potentially valuable tool has become due to lax state law. Cities across Iowa have shown an inability to handle the responsibility that goes with the permission to divert other jurisdictions’ tax revenues with TIF. Such projects that are supposed to benefit all whose revenues are being used. Unfortunately, it frequently does not work that way.

The report offers several ideas for reform to rein in abuses; it does not call for elimination of TIF, but for regulation. Perhaps Mr. Elliott missed that, as he states, “For me, an appropriate analogy to the TIF situation would be medical drugs, which can provide great benefit or be dangerously abused. In situations like that, you don’t eliminate it, you regulate against misuse and retain the capacity for beneficial use.” Agreed.

Indeed, the drug analogy is appropriate. Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF. Fisher’s report offers examples from Johnson County — notably Coralville’s use of property-tax dollars from one school district to create new property-tax base in another, in a project that effectively lured a major department store from Iowa City next door.

If state lawmakers ignore such examples, they will be repeated — in fact, it would give cities tacit approval to consider these practices appropriate. Take that, Clear Creek-Amana school district. Take that, Iowa City.

Fisher’s report is a wonderful example of how a nonpartisan organization that is focused wholly on issues, and not partisan politics, can help people of any political stripe to understand those issues. Iowans use our work and contribute to it because they know they can count on IPP to provide fact-based analysis and relevant research that holds the political spinners accountable. And yes, contributions to our work are welcome. Click here.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

It’s not theater: ‘The Pirates of River Landing’

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal ridden film tax credit.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Coralville City Council recently approved an astounding incentive package to entice Von Maur from Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall to Coralville’s Iowa River Landing project. The city has agreed to build a $9.5 million store for Von Maur. It doesn’t matter how well your store is doing; if someone offers you free rent in perpetuity, that gets your attention.

But the $9.5 million is only half the story. The city also agreed to:

  • give Von Maur the $1.5 million building site for $10,
  • pay $650,000 to buy out the company’s lease at Sycamore Mall,
  • pay all of Von Maur’s expenses of moving from the mall to Coralville, and
  • pay all of the cost of constructing necessary streets, sidewalks, parking lots, landscaping, street lighting, water, sewer and storm sewers associated with or needed by the store.

And that’s still not the end. This was a TIF deal, where the rationale is that you are creating tax base, in the long run.

Well, guess what happens to most of the tax revenue — the city rebates it to Von Maur, with no ending date, because this TIF is in a “blighted area,” which means the TIF goes on forever.

So I guess the day after perpetuity, the schools and the county will start collecting all the taxes normally due them from this project.

The property tax deal caps Von Maur’s liability for property taxes at $150,000 per year (inflated each year by the consumer price index or 2 percent, whichever is less). If you take the building cost and add the land value you get $11 million. Then throw in another $1.0 to $1.5 million for the value of interior improvements made by Von Maur that count as part of the real estate, and you get a taxable value of about $12.2 million. At the current total property tax rate in that area of $36.57 per thousand, that is about $450,000 per year for a total property tax bill.

Under the agreement, Von Maur pays only $150,000, the city pays the remaining $300,000. There is no time limit on the cap. But if we assume that the store will have an economic life of 20 years, we can calculate the present value equivalent of giving them $300,000 a year. It’s about $4.5 million (using a 3 percent discount rate). You could argue about the time frame, or the discount rate, or about how much faster property taxes will go up than the 2 percent limit on the cap (which means the rebate amount will increase).

But you will in the end come to the conclusion that the tax cap is worth a lot — $4 million to $5 million. That is, giving Von Maur $4 million to $5 million up front would be worth about the same as giving the company $300,000 a year for 20 years. That means the total incentive package is worth at least $16 million (9.5 + 1.5 + .65 + 4.5). “At least,” because that figure doesn’t include all of the city infrastructure costs, which will be substantial, or the moving costs. Von Maur, meanwhile, has to come up with just the cost of finishing the interior space to its specifications, an expense that is likely to be in the $3.5 to $4.5 million range, plus $150,000 in property taxes each year, and its share of maintaining the common property (mostly parking lots).

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal-ridden film tax credit, which briefly promised “half-price filmmaking” before the program was shut down. In addition to covering three-fourths of the up-front costs, the city will pay two-thirds of the annual property tax bill.

Coralville Council members — perhaps soon to be known as the Pirates of River Landing — apparently think this is a wise use of taxpayer funds. We can hope that the taxpayers of Coralville have a more sensible view of the world.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director