Tennessee won't say what incentives were promised to Loudon van maker
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
The state of Tennessee says it will not provide information about any financial incentives that were promised to lure delivery van maker Morgan Olson to Loudon until the deal is approved.
Sturgis, Michigan-based Morgan Olson is expected to bring as many as 500 jobs to Loudon within the next few years. Loudon County provided a 10-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program for the company as part of a local incentives program.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony last month for the facility, Gov. Bill Haslam confirmed that the state also offered economic incentives to the company, but said the details had not been finalized.
A request for details about the incentives, presented to the office of Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner of communications and marketing for the department of Economic and Community Development, was denied.
"The incentives for this project are still not finalized. That is pretty common," Brewer said.
He suggested that a formal document request be filed with the legal department.
"Once the grant is under contract and public they can notify you," he said.
The project should go before the State Funding Board in January. It will likely take longer for the contracts to be finalized, but the majority of the details will be available when it is ready for the State Funding Board, Brewer said in an email.
Summer Carr, director of contracts and a staff attorney for ECD, said his office is unable to produce requested records regarding "economic incentives provided by the state to Morgan Olson, Loudon , TN in connection with the company's recruitment to open factory in Loudon, TN."
"Under T.C.A. § 4-3-730(b), project documents are not subject to public records requests until the State has executed a contract for the project. At this time, no contract has been executed. ECD will provide requested records upon execution of a contract for this project, "Carr said in an email
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said she wonders why the information should not be public at this stage.
"I think it's fair that citizens know how much money the state plans to give companies to get jobs. That's transparency." she said.
Keeping the information under wraps might make more sense if the company was still considering the offer, she said.
In the case of Morgan Olson, the company has already purchased a manufacturing site and begun hiring. The company said the Loudon operation will be up and running in January.
"It's especially hard to see the need for secrecy when the company has already announced it's coming here, set up shop and is hiring people," Fisher said.
She also said it would make sense to have the information available to journalists before the funding board approval so that the terms of the deal could be published in advance.
"Hopefully the state will be able to share information sooner or cite the exemption under public records law that makes it confidential," she said
According to Brewer, the information has always been available except under special circumstances.
A law passed in 1988 gives the ECD commissioner the right to seal documents for five years if their dissemination is deemed damaging to the state's economic development efforts, Brewer said.
Such an action must first be agreed to and affirmed by the state attorney general, he said.
"No seal has been sought on anything here in some time. Years, actually," Brewer said.
There is also a set of exemptions to the open records laws which allows the department to keep details of project incentives confidential until they are either under contract or before the State Funding Board, he said.
Until the contract has been signed, the requested information does not really exist, Brewer said, adding that in the case of Morgan Olson, no contract has yet been signed.