Buncombe Explores Incentive Updates - TribPapers

Buncombe Explores Incentive Updates

Depending on which column on the right the commissioners select, the county would pay the per-job incentives on the left to corporations paying those wages. Screenshot.

Asheville – Tim Love, who serves as Buncombe County’s Director of Economic Development and Government Relations, oriented the commissioners to proposed changes to the policy for awarding economic development incentives. The policy was last updated in 2017, and that version of the policy did not include terms for increasing incentives with increasing wages and costs of living. Since 2017, the county has awarded incentives to six companies that invested a total of $750 million in capital improvements and created 1,000 jobs paying average annual wages in excess of $60,000.

The amount the county would pay for capital investment would not change with this revision, but Love indicated the wage incentives no longer looked as good as they did in 2017. According to the 2017 schedule, employers would receive $250 in incentives for each job paying $20.93–$26.92/hour, and incentives would rise in $250 increments for every $6 paid above that range. Jobs that did not pay the minimum at first but would build up to it within four years would qualify for $250 each.

The change was motivated by $20.93 becoming a “naturally occurring” wage in the local economy. In other words, the county was paying incentives to induce what already existed.

Love next showed a table where incentives would start at $500 and go up at $250 intervals to $2,750. These increments were aligned with columns built on three possible baselines for adjusting the policy: average wages in the county in 2022 ($24.25/hour) and median income translated to hourly wages for Buncombe ($28.60) and North Carolina ($29.09). Starting with the values in the former paragraph, these values increased at $6 increments except for the Buncombe County median wage column, which appeared to be the victim of an AI override during the cut-and-paste process. Love said “there was no science” to the way the ranges were selected, and they were negotiable. He said he considered all three options good and said staff had a rationale for each.

Love said the changes were necessary because leadership wants people to be able to afford to live where they work. He reminded the commissioners that the county would be paying incentives, not entitlements. Love said, “We’re incentivizing a certain type of behavior from employers,” like sustainable practices and employee health insurance. Therefore, it would serve no purpose to design incentives so high that potential employers “did not come to the table.” Love said his office wants them to “come to the table” and negotiate. Another consideration was that he did not want incentives to be so high that the county was unable to reward other employer choices.

Chair Brownie Newman said it appeared that an employer could pay some of their employees qualifying, living wages and pay the remainder very poorly and still get incentives. Love replied that the rules would allow that, but, again, employers seeking the incentives have to come to the table. A lot of businesses seek incentives but never get them. Most of the companies that have gotten them, though, are hiring in the ranges on the table, with “the bottom rung” representing only entry-level pay. Both Newman and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara expressed interest in setting a floor for any wages paid by a recipient of incentives, and Love said staff would vet the idea.

Commissioner Al Whitesides said it would do no good to incentivize job creation for employees who can’t afford to live in the county. The extra commuting would impose a strain on the infrastructure and lower the quality of life for everybody, which would be antithetical to the purpose of incentives.

Another part of the policy that would change pertains to equitable hiring. Under the existing policy, companies can get $500 per employee who is a former low-level, non-violent offender or is participating in the NCWorks Apprenticeship Program or the Buncombe County STEP program, provided the employer is paying them between the average wage in Buncombe and the living wage set by Just Economics.

The changes would require employers to participate in the Chamber of Commerce’s Inclusive Hiring Partners program or something similar. Inclusive Hiring Partners not only provides low-income individuals with job skills training but also guarantees interviews for participants. Employers would also have to pay more than the living wage. Employees would have to participate in NCWorks, STEP, Inclusive Hiring Partners, or the corporation’s qualifying in-house equitable hiring program, or be justice-involved. The minimum incentive would be $1,000 per qualifying employee. In response to a question from Newman, Love explained that the equitable hiring and living wage incentives were additive.