The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to amend its economic development incentives—or, colloquially, property tax breaks—policy to include community input requirements.
The amendment "really came out of the whole Tesla negotiations," Commissioner Brigid Shea said on Tuesday, referring to the county's decision to enter into an economic incentive agreement with the electric car manufacturer earlier this year.
Union representatives and others criticized the county for what they said was an opaque process that left little time for residents to voice their concerns.
Those same advocates applauded the decision, but some also pointed out that the commissioners were scheduled to discuss whether to accept an application for another possible economic incentive agreement—referred to only as "Project Silicon Silver"—behind closed doors on the same day.
Jeremy Hendricks, a representative of the Laborers International union, which represents thousands of Texas construction and service workers, urged commissioners to apply the updated policy to Project Silicon Silver.
"I do find it troubling that you have (an item) on the agenda … to take action on another seemingly secretive deal," he said on a call into the court. "We believe this process must have input from the community."
Travis County spokesperson Hector Nieto would not say which company had applied for an incentives deal but confirmed that the policy change would apply to any agreement considered moving forward.
The new policy, which mostly mirrors the city of Austin's, requires the Commissioners Court to post draft agreements publicly and host two public hearings, as well as accept written comments, before taking action on any such deals.
Eden Meyers, a member of the local nonprofit Advocates for Social Justice Reform, supported the decision.
"I was just over the moon when Tesla announced that they were coming to Austin," she said during public comment. "That said, Tesla does not have a good reputation as a corporate citizen … and I definitely think when we're talking about spending this kind of money in the county we need the opportunity for the community to have input on that."
This amendment to the economic development agreement comes as the court continues to reconsider its economic development priorities, which have recently shifted away from providing tax breaks to large corporations, such as Tesla and Samsung, in favor of providing assistance to local businesses.
Commissioners voted to "pause" accepting new applications for economic incentive agreements in July 2019 after the Texas Legislature approved a property tax revenue cap, which limits how much property tax revenue local governments can collect.
"We simply cannot afford to give preferential tax treatment to our wealthiest corporate citizens, or prospective wealthy corporate citizens, under a 3.5% revenue cap," former Travis County Judge and current State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt said at the time.
Then in December, the court voted unanimously to adopt a new economic development strategic plan that prioritizes helping local businesses and workers' rights.
Amid the pandemic—and the economic recession it occasioned—the court voted to lift its moratorium in May to consider a special project, which was later revealed to be a proposed Tesla Gigafactory.
The Commissioners Court did not name the company or publicly discuss the proposed agreement until June 24.
Less than three weeks later, commissioners approved a multi-million dollar incentives agreement in exchange for 5,000 new jobs and a minimum wage of $15 an hour, including for construction workers employed by contractors and subcontractors.
We are excited to announce @Tesla has chosen Travis County for its newest Gigafactory site! This will bring an esti… https://t.co/JcylFQVWeA— Travis County TX (@Travis County TX)1595456684.0
Union representatives were critical of the court's decision and said commissioners could have demanded more from Tesla, which they argued had "a troubled history" with taxpayer subsidies and workplace safety.
The updated policy is intended to allow the public a chance to provide input on proposed deals as well as to ensure commissioners have time to incorporate their feedback in the final version.
"It really is very out of date, very traditional economic development policy and not the progressive policy that you're seeing other jurisdictions move toward—and that Travis County wants to move toward," said Diana Ramirez, the county's director of economic development and strategic development.
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."