Saying they are not being given enough time and advance information to properly consider requests from companies seeking county incentives, some members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners are calling for changes to the process.
Last week, in a closed-door session, commissioners were presented with a request for incentives to bring 1,300 MetLife jobs to Charlotte.
Although commissioners gave preliminary approval to $1.9 million in incentives a final vote could come in an open session April 2 some commissioners lament that they first learned about the MetLife project on the night they voted.
Commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham, a Democrat elected last year, said the process in which requests for economic aid are presented to the county is flawed and has been even before the MetLife vote.
Cotham said she wants the commissioners economic development committee, which was revived this year, to review requests for incentives from companies and make a recommendation to the full board. Democratic Commissioner Trevor Fuller will head the committee.
Commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said the original committee had been made inactive in 2011. He said the revived committee hadnt been in place long enough to consider the MetLife request. Even if it was, he said, it might not have made a difference in how information flowed to commissioners.
Im not sure that even if the committee had been up and running that it would have resulted in the disclosure of the MetLife name, he said.
On March 5, Cotham said, commissioners only had about 15 minutes to decide whether to give the incentives to MetLife in a meeting during which commissioners say a Charlotte Chamber representative unveiled the companys plans to them for the first time.
Cotham said withholding such information from commissioners who are being asked to hand over taxpayers dollars to a company bothers her.
Sometimes when we have a meeting we have to make a decision involving a lot of money in a short period of time, and we dont really have a lot of time to look into it, she said. We suddenly have a meeting, and we have five minutes to decide on incentives.
Were not there to rubber stamp everything.
The chamber, she said, is doing a good job, and theyre working hard. But commissioners should be involved in discussions about companies seeking public dollars on the front end, she said.
In an email to the Observer, Natalie English, a Charlotte chamber public policy vice president, said the chamber signed a nondisclosure agreement with MetLife, preventing it from telling commissioners about the companys plans until just before the incentives vote.
English said the chamber signs such agreements when companies request it.
Two days after commissioners voted in favor of the incentives, MetLife announced that it was creating hubs in Cary and Charlotte, with plans to bring 1,300 jobs to each. That MetLife made the announcement two days later made some commissioners, Cotham chief among them, question whether the company had long ago made up its mind to come to Charlotte.
The Charlotte City Council has also voted in a closed-door session for roughly $1 million in property tax rebates for MetLife, Councilman Andy Dulin said. The council is set to vote in open session on the incentives Monday, he said.
Asked whether he, like county commissioners, had to wait until the day he voted on the incentives request to learn that MetLife was looking to come to Charlotte, Dulin said no.
He declined to elaborate, and attempts to reach other city officials were unsuccessful Monday.
Ken Atkins, who runs Wake County Economic Development, which is part of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said he told Wake County commissioners in December that MetLife was thinking about bringing jobs to Wake and Mecklenburg counties.
Wake County still has to give a final vote to a grant of about $1.57 million, Wake County Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan said.
Atkins said he trusts Wake County commissioners with the names of companies interested in coming to the county.
Ive never had any information leak out or become public after a private, closed-session meeting, he said. We have a level of trust. I feel comfortable.
The members of the states Economic Investment Committee, which voted on Job Development Investment Grant incentives for MetLife totaling $87.2 million, knew that MetLife was looking at coming to North Carolina in late February when they voted in a closed session, said Josh Ellis, spokesman for the states commerce department.
Vilma Leake, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, also favors earlier disclosure.
Wake County knew the company and all of the information, said Leake, a Democrat. Why was it such a secret for us in Mecklenburg County?
In an email, Cotham said that commissioners will probably involve the revived economic development committee as a tool to vet incentives requests.
No matter what, she wrote. We just want more info.