APS Board reverses track on Hormel abatement, approves 5-year option

Published 7:19 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Austin Public Schools Board on Monday afternoon, during a work session, revisited the issue of a tax abatement for a Hormel Food Corporation’s plan to build a child care facility in Austin.

In a 5-2 vote on two decisions, the board voted to first rescind an earlier vote this month to deny Hormel a 15-year-tax abatement and followed it with an approval of a five-year abatement.

Board Chair Kathy Green and board member Carol McAlister both voted no on both decisions.

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The compromise is a shift by many of the board members, some who were still not comfortable with a 15-year abatement, but recognized the significance of the partnership.

There was some discussion on whether or not the school board should even be involved in granting abatements, however, another important point of discussion Monday circled the possibility of a distinct set of policies that guided the board’s consideration for abatements in the future.

Several board member’s felt that they weren’t made fully aware of all the details of Hormel’s project, including Carolyn Dube, who questioned why more details of the planned $5 million project were not made available sooner in the process.

“It would have been awesome to be part of that conversation earlier on,” Dube said.

“Maybe we could have been better informed previously,” Don Leathers agreed, but added, “Which brings up the point — maybe school districts shouldn’t be involved in tax abatements at all.”

Board members felt that a clearer picture needed to be presented on both sides as they admitted that even in the community there was some confusion as to the decision process itself.

“Out of all of this, what I’ve taken away from this is we as a board need to be stronger in communicating our message,” member Peggy Young said. “Have this conversation early on. What was presented didn’t feel right in the moment. The conversations since then, for the most part, has been done respectively and productively … in both directions.”

After the initial vote earlier in the month, the school board received push back from the community, which indicated disapproval with the initial vote, including Hormel.

“We are very disappointed that the Austin Public School Board chose not to support a very important initiative for the community of Austin,” said Hormel Chief Communications Officer Wendy Watkins after the 15-year abatement had been voted down. “Hormel Foods has, once again, made a large commitment to the Austin community in order to address a longtime, well-known need for so many families. This project is an opportunity for the school board to be part of a solution to fill the childcare gap that exists.” 

The Herald reached out to Hormel for comment on Monday’s decision, but had not heard back by deadline.

The tone on Monday, however, was largely of a compromising nature as several members were open to abatements of smaller terms.

“I would be willing to pass an abatement for five years and then ask the board to work on some kind of guidelines for us for future requests,” Cece Kroc said.

However, as Green pointed out, she still had concerns over granting abatements to businesses and warned that this will probably not be the last instance of this.

“This will be setting a precedent,” she said, but also noted that this will create competition saying, “it’s also going to be an intensifying of competition with the other child care facilities.”

Hormel has said that it hopes to break ground sometime in April and had already received approval for 15-year abatements from the Austin City Council and Mower County Board of Commissioners.

Board members plan on revisiting the issue of how they approach abatements in the future, agreeing that a set of guidelines would help in making decisions in the future.

In other news:

• The school board voted to accept the resignation of Educational Services Director John Alberts. Superintendent Dr. Joey Page could not  comment on the resignation, saying it fell under data privacy laws. In a statement to the Herald, Page said: “John Alberts has resigned from his position effective June 1, 2023, and will be working on special assignments until the end of his tenure.”