Is It All Just A Dog And Pony Show ?
After the Facebook data center appeared on the council agenda, I started to really look into it. I am always for something good happening for our city, but I do not take for granted the word of our elected officials. When they say, “It is great. A great deal.” this is not good enough. Show me evidence it is a great deal. It is our responsibility to ask questions and make sure that things are a good deal for us and for our city.
Each time I asked for a document, I was ignored or dismissed. Every question I asked was answered by “It is a great deal for our city”, or "Why are you so negative, Pascal?" Again, not good enough. So I used the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) to try to get the answers I wanted. Have you heard the term FOIA? The FOIA is a powerful tool for us citizens. Citizens need access to information in order to hold government responsible and to shine a light on cronyism and corruption. To make sure the people we elected are actually doing the job they are supposed to do and keep them honest.
What I discovered was just astonishing. The city used our tax dollars and hired a PR firm to fool us. Why? If this Facebook Data Center is such a great deal for our city, why do we need a PR firm to do all the messaging about it? Originally, the price tag being considered for the PR firm's services was $40,000.00. When Covid hit, and things were shut down and the budget reduced, The city agreed to pay the firm $8,800.00 for 4 months of services.
This firm is Imperium Strategies LLC and is run by Clint Brewer.
As soon as the contract was signed by our Mayor, the PR firm got right to work.
This firm wrote the beautiful speech the chair woman of the Economic Development Agency Board made at the city council meeting on May 12. At that same council meeting, our elected officials asked some questions of our EDA director, James Fenton about the project. Guess who wrote these questions? James Fenton wrote the questions himself. These questions were “soft” in order to make the project look good. Why didn't our elected officials have any questions of their own? Who is running this town? I thought our elected officials are supposed to work for us, the citizens. Who are they working for? Who are they representing? Are the city council members simply pawns of whomever is the Big-Wig-Du-Jour? (With today's flavor being one of the biggest of wigs, Facebook itself.) Are all the city council meetings a farce? Is any of it real, or is this the way they conduct business (OUR business) every week?
The PR firm wrote the talking points for how this project was presented to us, the citizens and how it was presented to the press. I remember making a comment about how James Fenton made a great "salesman's speech" during one of the meetings about this project. Now I know why it sounded like that. It was a sales pitch, all the talking points were on the list from this PR firm. It's really disheartening to think that our city is putting a spin on things when presenting them to us. Why do they feel the need to do that? Just tell us the truth. Tell us why it's a good deal. They could have just said, "It's about the money. We will get more tax dollars from this project than we would if it was just a farm." And then let people ask questions, and answer their questions. But with all the secrecy, something feels off. Why all the spin?
Several communications were exchanged about my involvement. About my blog about the project. Shawn Fennell contacted James Fenton who contacted the PR firm. The mention that I am running should be irrelevant but unfortunately, for them, it is not. If I was not running, would they even worry about it? The important thing here is the fact I am asking questions needing answers. I have been asking questions and voicing my concerns for years now and this has nothing to do with me running for a seat. Elected or not, I will continue asking the right questions because citizens voices need to be heard and not ignored.
I have to admit that I liked Clint Brewer's answer. Yes, I am doing my homework. But shouldn't that be the council member's job? And since we never did get an answer, I will ask the question again - what will be done with the money we are getting from Facebook? If they are going to be the biggest tax payer in the county, will that money be used to pay off the bonds for the school and the courthouse that caused our taxes to go up so significantly in the past 5 years? Will Sumner County citizens get a tax decrease? What about giving small businesses a tax break with the money? They are not eligible for PILOT (payment in lieu of tax) agreements, but they are the heart of our economy. Will some of the money be used for that?
We were told that this was a great project based on a study made by Younger Associates, a firm from Jackson TN specializing in Advertising, Marketing and Research. I asked Mr. Fenton to provide us, the citizens, with a copy of that study. He did not, so I did another FOIA request. I received the study and emails associated with it. The study on its own looks great until you read the emails. The value of the buildings was cut half by the company itself, (Facebook was allowed to reduce the value of their own buildings), to show a value of $165 Million total for two buildings instead of $355 Million. The City went with it. Why did they do that? Is it because it looks a lot better if they will get only $11 Million tax break (for phase 1 & 2) instead of a $64 Million break?
Can you imagine if, as a citizen, I was deciding the value of my property for tax purposes? I would love to do that, but let’s be honest, that will never happen. They won’t let me do it, so why did they let Facebook do it?
It is all about the numbers and the way you present them. I don’t even know if Mr. Fenton was really convinced this was such a great deal. His own words were, “It is not such a bad deal.”
But, the issue here is not the tax breaks given to a huge company coming to our city. Large businesses are given PILOT agreements to bring jobs and growth. The issue is the matter of honesty and transparency in how city business is conducted.
The way this was handled at the city council is not the way I think our business should be done. Our elected officials should be transparent with the citizens who elected them, and they should listen to our voices, and represent our concerns. Do they think that because they are elected, they know best? That the citizens don't understand everything involved, that there are things we don't know, so it's better if they just keep things to themselves? Is it just easier for them to not involve citizens? Did the city council members know that there was a PR firm involved? Were they being fed the spin? Or were they in on it?