The Bethlehem Industrial Development Agency is generally against granting tax breaks to retail businesses — but don’t expect to read about it on the organization’s website.
At a meeting Friday, Aug. 24, the agency wrapped up a multi-month discussion about its tax abatement policy. During that meeting, the group’s board adopted a new uniform tax exemption policy that made mostly cosmetic changes to the existing document.
The IDA removed a “tier 3” set of abatements that has never been used, and renamed the existing tax break classifications as “standard,” “enhanced” and “special” packages.
Shortly afterwards, there was a discussion regarding whether the IDA should grant tax breaks to retail establishments. It is especially pertinent since several business in the Vista Tech Park — a ShopRite grocery store, two banks and an optometrist’s office — were granted varying degrees of tax abatements. Under ShopRite’s “enhanced” agreement, for example, the store will not pay property taxes at all for two years.
These Vista projects have made for the IDA’s first tax breaks given to retail establishments (indeed, up until 2007 there were laws prohibiting it), and IDA Chairman Frank Venezia said it has always been the group’s policy to avoid granting them.
“It’s pretty clear to those who are in retail it’s going to take a pretty big exemption for us to do something that’s retail,” he said.
Vice Chairman Joseph Richardson echoed those thoughts.
“We look at every project on its own merits,” he said.
Several board members said a spirited discussion had preceded the decision to grant ShopRite its tax breaks. It was eventually concluded the best course of action would be to continue to examine proposals on a case-by-case basis, but only grant retail businesses tax breaks in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Board members also agreed no language should be added to the IDA’s website regarding its policy on retail tax breaks so as not to dissuade businesses from approaching the town altogether.
In related news, the IDA is searching for a part-time economic development professional, primarily to help with development of the Vista Tech Park. The agency has been advertising the position but has received limits responses. There was talk Friday of sharpening the requirements and duties for the position. The agency had set aside $75,000 for the part-time job, but it is also possible that number will change.
Richardson asked IDA board members to turn to their rolodexes.
“We think networking is the way to go,” he said.