Ignoring warnings from city development officials that they don’t understand tax abatements, about 400 Columbus teachers marched up to the doorstep of the CoverMyMeds headquarters in downtown Columbus on April 24 and presented the firm with a giant “tax bill.”
Chanting “Pharma got handouts, kids got sold out,” the teachers union tried presenting CoverMyMeds with a huge poster reading: “Bill: Robber, CoverMyMeds” for $44 million, but were turned away.
The firm received a 15-year, 100 percent property-tax abatement last year for a new $225 million office complex in downtown Columbus to be completed by 2024.
Outside, Columbus Education Association President John Coneglio, standing in the bed of a pickup truck equipped with a public-address system, said union members won’t tolerate “welfare for the wealthiest.”
But city officials say teachers are only hurting their schools.
Abatements are needed to entice businesses to stay in Columbus, where their employees will pay income taxes to the city, even if schools don’t get the full property tax owed, said Steve Schoeny, Columbus’ development director.
Employers such as CoverMyMeds are “inherently portable,” and could easily relocate, he said.
The Columbus Board of Education last June approved the CoverMyMeds abatement, which will cost the schools about $55 million in property taxes over its lifetime, the city estimated last year. But Schoeny said last week the schools will share about $650,000 a year in income taxes with the city.
“I’m not sure where (the schools) are losing money on that deal,” he said.
“Of course that’s what they say,” Coneglio countered. “We know the argument. It’s the chicken-and-the-egg thing,” that developers would not have built without the abatement.
But why should condos selling for $300,000 be subsidized by taxpayers, Coneglio asked.
“We’re just saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this wisely. You can’t just give everything away,’ ” he said.
Steve Murray, 59, teaches at Columbus Alternative High School, a building where the district is doing $1.1 million in emergency repairs after the public complained about its poor condition. He considers the abatements “racist.”
Murray said it’s unfair that tax money is diverted from an overwhelmingly minority school district to wealthy corporations.
“Go to any suburban school and then compare it to a typical Columbus city school, and it is appalling,” said Paul Dragin, 45, a high school English teacher.
“As a coach, we take our teams there (to suburban schools), and these kids are looking around like, ‘This is what the suburban kids deal with every day?’ ”
The trail of red-shirted union members stretching several blocks marched through downtown Columbus, past Nathan Dowds, 36, who was taking a noon break by the river.
The ubiquitous tax breaks for developers “feels like a race to the bottom maybe, but I understand why the city feels compelled to engage in that way,” Dowds said.
The solution is to change federal tax laws to keep corporations from playing cities and states against one another, Dowds said.
Murray thinks he has a simpler answer: If city and district officials are worried that companies will move away if they have to pay their taxes, “let them leave,” he said.
“If they’re not putting any taxes into the city, then who cares?”