Public opinion on Facebook data center deal split as vote looms

Public opinion on Facebook data center deal split as vote looms

(Weston Kenney, Deseret News, File)

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WEST JORDAN — Conflicting and heated opinions ruled a public forum Wednesday on a potential $240 million tax break deal to lure a Facebook data center to West Jordan.

Some West Jordan residents scolded Salt Lake County for opposing a deal that would develop land that currently only yields nominal tax dollars for their school district and city.

"I'm pretty ticked off at the county," Steve Jones said. "If that property sits there for 20 years as agriculture, you're getting nothing."

Others, including David Ward, applauded the county for standing firm against allowing millions in tax breaks for a multimillion-dollar company.

"I know West Jordan is expanding rapidly, so I would assume this would have plenty of development opportunities in our near future," Ward said. "I would hate to give away those opportunities to what appears to be a poor agreement today."

There was, however, a prevailing commonality among residents — frustration with the lack of solid information about so-called Project Discus and how the public just began learning of the deal less than two weeks ago, even though it's been a work in progress for more than a year.

"It seems this decision is being based off of fear, fear of the future, fear of the unknown," Terri Mills said. "There are far too many uncertainties."

Supporters say the deal would be a worthwhile investment to spur economic development on the long-time vacant land, but critics rip Project Discus for rebating so much taxpayer money for a facility that would only attract 70 to 130 jobs.

If Facebook builds its data center on the 230-acre plot, it would generate more than $217 million in new property taxes over 20 years. Of that, local taxing entities — including West Jordan, Salt Lake County and the Jordan School District — would only keep $33 million because the deal would allow more than $183 million in property tax breaks.

The tax rebates could escalate to $240 million after an energy sales tax and state sales tax are factored in, but those figures are still unclear.

Salt Lake County officials organized Wednesday's forum to give taxpayers a platform to voice their opinions about Project Discus, even though county leaders had already decided to vote against it.

"We are hopeful other entities who haven't made up their mind can see the serious concerns that members of the public have on this," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said, "and what I'm hearing is people feel like this is a bad deal for the public and taxpayer."

Because the county has two votes on the eight-member taxing entity committee that is scheduled decide Monday whether Project Discus survives, one more dissenting vote would stop the deal in its tracks.

So far, however, the score for those supporting the deal outweighs the county's opposition. Starving for additional tax revenue, the Jordan Board of Education set aside disdain for the terms of the tax breaks and voted Tuesday to join West Jordan officials in support of the deal.

The swing vote could rest with the Utah State Board of Education or Dave Martin, chief financial officer of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, who will also represent the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and the South Salt Lake Valley Mosquito Abatement District.

Martin said Wednesday the entities he will be representing generally "try to support our member cities … but it doesn't guarantee a 'yes' vote." Martin said he's hoping for discussion the day of the committee vote to help him decide his position.

State School Board Chairman David Crandall said the board will take Wednesday's public comments into consideration before taking an official position.

That decision, however, has been delayed. The board was originally scheduled to vote Thursday, but the meeting was canceled because of scheduling issues. Crandall said the board may not be able to take formal position before Monday's vote, meaning the board may have to abstain from the vote.

An abstaining vote would technically be a dissenting vote. West Jordan City Manager Mark Palesh said the committee could reschedule Monday's meeting to give the State School Board more time, though Wednesday he expressed a reluctance to wait even a week.

"It would postpone moving ahead with the construction schedule," he said.

Meanwhile, it's been much smoother sailing for Los Lunas, New Mexico, which is competing for the Facebook data center.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal to build new solar energy centers that would power the proposed data center, New Mexico-based news channel KOB reported.

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Katie McKellar


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