Last month the Webster Parish Police Jury voted 11-1 against granting manufacturing company E.I. Williams a tax abatement. This decision was met with some resistance from local members of the business community, as the incentive is used to entice other potential businesses to locate in Webster Parish.
“On May the 4th, we voted not to exempt E.I. Williams. I think that we had all the information that we needed as far as E.I. Williams is concerned, but since then, a lot of consequences with that vote have come to light, and I would like for us to reconsider this vote,” said Police Jury President Jim Bonsall.
This tax abatement would be for 80% of the companies property tax over a five year period, after which the company can go to the jury again for a renewell. The purpose of these abatements is to give businesses an incentive to locate in Louisiana and more specifically, Webster Parish.
The complication that arose after the Jury voted against the abatement last month was setting the precedent that even if a business met the requirements for the abatement, Webster Parish would not grant it.
“We don’t want to dangle something in front of them and then jerk it away. We want to be pro-business and business friendly here in Webster Parish,” said Phillip Smart, Minden’s Economic Development Director.
The jury’s decision posed a problem for individuals such as Smart who are tasked with bringing more business to the parish. This tax abatement is one of the factors that companies consider when deciding where to locate, so when the jury voted against it, it implied that other interested businesses may not be able to get it either.
“Don Pierson, Secretary of LED, called me and made me aware of the situation and how this could affect Webster Parish as a whole. That would of course mess up economic development in a lot of different scenarios that we’re working on right now, and it’s just not a risk that we need to be taking,” said Smart.
“So I contacted a few of the local businesses and community leaders just to let them know what was going on, and that if they had any type of connection with any of the police jurors to please reach out and contact them to argue our case.”
And it seems as though making those contacts had the desired effect, seeing as some Jurors vocalized that they understood more aspects of their decision than when they initially made it.
“At that time I really didn’t understand the whole thing, but since that time, I have talked with some people, and I do understand it better than at the time that I voted. Maybe I should’ve asked more questions at that time, but I didn’t. So I confess I didn’t ask those questions at the time, but now I understand better as to what’s going on,” said Juror Vera Davison, Dist. 10.
Granted, it wasn’t as if the Jury’s initial decision was baseless. To provide more context, the past meetings have revealed that costs continue to go up and revenues for the parish have stagnated.
On paper, the decision was between giving the company an 80% exemption or to not, and given their need for funding, it becomes more clear why they made their initial decision. However, the complications that could arise from denying this abatement weren’t as clear, and after the jury was made aware, most were in support of overturning their original decision.
“I don’t necessarily think there is a wrong vote. There are two sides to this deal. One is about revenue, and one is about economic development,” said Bonsall.
“Everyone knows there is a problem with revenue for the parish, and we’ve got to do something somewhere, I’m not sure this is the right time to do it.”
“The company asking for this is providing badly needed jobs for our area,” said Juror Bruce Blanton, Dist. 1. “So there will be payroll taxes and sales tax that we will immediately start getting money from.”
Juror Nick Cox, Dist. 8 added, “The thing that comes through to me is that there are a lot of organizations in our parish … that help us bring businesses to our community, and I feel like that’s where the consequences are that I don’t like. I’d just hate for us to be working against ourselves in that way. I feel we need to do all we can to support the people who support us.”
When the vote came up again during June’s meeting all present police jurors voted unanimously to overturn the decision.
After hearing of the Jury’s decision to grant E.I Williams the abatement, Director Smart wanted to shine a light on some other individuals who helped him reach out to the jury to convince them to overturn their vote.
“I have to take my hat off to Sarah Haynes. I think it really helped a lot, hearing from someone who is not working for the city or economic development, they’re just a community leader and just want to grow the city from the bottom of their heart,” said Smart. “Her calling and making those contacts was even better than me calling alone. I definitely think she pushed the envelope further.”
Smart also thanked Mayor Terry Gardner, State Rep. Wayne McMahen, State Senator Robert Mills, as well as countless local business leaders for their efforts in contacting the jury.
“I’m pleased that the Police Jury decided to overturn this decision. As Economic Development Director, it is my goal to make not only the City of Minden, but Webster Parish as prosperous as it can be. This helps cement Webster as a parish that is business friendly, and one hosts a business community that is willing to go above and beyond to help one another out,” said Smart.