Deal to lure Facebook to West Jordan may not need county support

Deal to lure Facebook to West Jordan may not need county support

(Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

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WEST JORDAN — Elected officials in West Jordan and Salt Lake County appear locked in an impasse over a $240 million tax break deal to lure an enormous Facebook data center to Utah after a contentious meeting Tuesday.

But West Jordan may still have enough support from other taxing entities to push the deal through, even without the county's rubber stamp.

The swing vote appears to rest on the Jordan School Board, but it's not yet clear how district leaders are leaning.

As Project Discus continued on a fast-track forward, West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe and state economic leaders pitched to the Salt Lake County Council and the Jordan School Board the city's plan to attract the 550,000-square-foot data facility during two meetings Tuesday.

While school board officials decided to take another week to gather feedback from the public on the issue — expressing uncertain opinions — county leaders didn't hesitate in saying they didn't like what they heard.

It was the first time the County Council had seen the details of the plan, which had remained in the shadows before Mayor Ben McAdams spoke out against it last week.

Now, county officials have one week — until the County Council's next meeting — to negotiate different terms with West Jordan.

That's because council members and McAdams said they couldn't support the deal as it currently stands.

"All of us are in favor of economic development. However, we are not in favor of economic development at any cost," County Councilman Richard Snelgrove said. "When I looked at this, I had to ask myself: If this is not Facebook … would this same deal be extended? Or are we starstruck because it's Facebook?"

Snelgrove was the first public official to directly name Facebook as the company behind the project.


While other public officials have only referred to the plan as Project Discus, declining to confirm the project as Facebook due to confidentiality agreements, other sources and public documents indicate the social media giant is behind the effort to bring what could be one of the largest data centers in the world to Utah.

"To me, it comes down to this being a $240 million piece of corporate welfare," Snelgrove said. "I just don't think it's fair to the people of Salt Lake County. … As it stands now, this is not something I can support."

Snelgrove, along with Salt Lake County Council members Steve DeBry and Jim Bradley, also expressed concern over the tax incentive compared with the 100 or so jobs the data center would bring, as well as uncertainty over how much water the facility would consume on a daily average.

While McAdams has worried the agreement would require a legal commitment of roughly 5 million gallons of water per day, West Jordan and state officials argued the data center would actually consume much less on a daily basis, though that figure is still unclear.

DeBry echoed McAdams' concerns that the deal did not include a "cap" on the actual dollar amount the company would be rebated because property taxes can vary from projections.

"This doesn't sit right. It doesn't smell right," DeBry said. "I don't want to be difficult. I want to help West Jordan all I can. But as the way it's laid out … it's just not good government."

I want to help West Jordan all I can. But as the way it's laid out … it's just not good government.

–Steve DeBry, council member

The fate of the deal depends on whether six of eight members on West Jordan's Taxing Entity Committee approves the plan during its Aug. 22 meeting. Of the members on the committee, two represent the city, two are from the county, two are with the Jordan School Board, one represents the State School Board, and one for all other taxing entities.

If the two county representatives vote against the plan but all other members are in favor, it would still pass.

Rolfe said while he "believes most people support the project," he would still like to secure the county's votes.

"Our entire council and our staff are still open to any type of negotiation," he said. "I'm hoping we can get through (this) and get the full eight votes so we can send a message to the company that we're all supportive of this."

After the Jordan School Board was briefed on the project Tuesday night, board member Matt Young told his colleagues, "We are the swing vote on this."

"Our decision is very significant," he said.

According to planning documents, the data center would create more than $111 million in taxes for the district over a 20-year period, though $94 million of that revenue would be rebated as part of the incentive.

That means the district would keep $17 million in new tax revenue over the 20-year life of the project. After year 21, the center would yield about $7.4 million to the district annually. Currently, the area yields only about $100 to the district.

Theresa Foxley, deputy director of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development, said data centers can be generally appealing to school districts because their smaller employee workforce doesn't bring many children. That means a new data center doesn't strain the school districts but still contributes property tax revenue to the district.

Chip Dawson, a South Jordan resident, was the only resident to speak during the school board's public hearing Tuesday. He urged the school board not to be tempted by the project's tax incentive, especially when other companies might be willing to develop the area at less of a cost to taxpayers.

Do not give $94 million in tax money away for 20 years and turn around and tell me you need $250 million to build more schools.

–Chip Dawson, resident

"Do not give $94 million in tax money away for 20 years and turn around and tell me you need $250 million to build more schools," Dawson said.

State School Board President Susan Pulispher said in addition to considering benefits for the district's schools and its children, the board also has to consider its taxpayers. She suggested the board take the next week to gather input from the public before taking a formal vote.

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