Rethinking Property Tax Incentives for Business
The use of property tax incentives for business by local governments throughout the United States has escalated over the last 50 years. While there is little evidence that these tax incentives are an effective instrument to promote economic development, they cost state and local governments $5 to $10 billion each year in forgone revenue.
Three major obstacles can impede the success of property tax incentives as an economic development tool. First, incentives are unlikely to have a significant impact on a firm’s profitability since property taxes are a small part of the total costs for most businesses—averaging much less than 1 percent of total costs for the U.S. manufacturing sector. Second, tax breaks are sometimes given to businesses that would have chosen the same location even without the incentives. When this happens, property tax incentives merely deplete the tax base without promoting economic development. Third, widespread use of incentives within a metropolitan area reduces their effectiveness, because when firms can obtain similar tax breaks in most jurisdictions, incentives are less likely to affect business location decisions.
This report reviews five types of property tax incentives and examines their characteristics, costs, and effectiveness: property tax abatement programs; tax increment finance; enterprise zones; firm-specific property tax incentives; and property tax exemptions in connection with issuance of industrial development bonds. Alternatives to tax incentives should be considered by policy makers, such as customized job training, labor market intermediaries, and business support services. State and local governments also can pursue a policy of broad-based taxes with low tax rates or adopt split-rate property taxation with lower taxes on buildings than land.
State policy makers are in a good position to increase the effectiveness of property tax incentives since they control how local governments use them. For example, states can restrict the use of incentives to certain geographic areas or certain types of facilities; publish information on the use of property tax incentives; conduct studies on their effectiveness; and reduce destructive local tax competition by not reimbursing local governments for revenue they forgo when they award property tax incentives.
Local government officials can make wiser use of property tax incentives for business and avoid such incentives when their costs exceed their benefits. Localities should set clear criteria for the types of projects eligible for incentives; limit tax breaks to mobile facilities that export goods or services out of the region; involve tax administrators and other stakeholders in decisions to grant incentives; cooperate on economic development with other jurisdictions in the area; and be clear from the outset that not all businesses that ask for an incentive will receive one.
Despite a generally poor record in promoting economic development, property tax incentives continue to be used. The goal is laudable: attracting new businesses to a jurisdiction can increase income or employment, expand the tax base, and revitalize distressed urban areas. In a best case scenario, attracting a large facility can increase worker productivity and draw related firms to the area, creating a positive feedback loop. This report offers recommendations to improve the odds of achieving these economic development goals.