When Tesla made its first public speech to bring its Cybertruck factory to Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, the company faced citizens’ concerns about treating workers, the proposal’s impact on the local housing crisis, the need of granting tax breaks to automakers and most of all, CEO Elon Musk.
About 45 residents of Austin and the surrounding area spoke about the factory deal Tuesday at a virtual public meeting held by the Travis County Commissioners Court, the administrative and policy-making arm of the local government. Many opposed Musk’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic, including how he reopened the Tesla vehicle factory in California in violation of a local health order, sued the county where the factory is located, and spread misinformation about the virus. Texas is currently experiencing a “massive outbreak” of COVID-19 cases, according to Governor Greg Abbott.
Tesla has spent the past few months soliciting bids for its next US factory from “almost every state and governor east of the Rocky Mountains,” Rohan Patel, the company’s chief policy officer for public policy, said at the Tuesday meeting. But Tesla is now focused on bringing the factory, which is where it will have Cybertruck and Model Y SUVs head to the East Coast, to two specific locations: Austin or Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Before community members spoke, Tesla offered a more detailed look so far about what he wants to do with the factory, as well as what he wants from Austin and Travis County in return. The company told local authorities that it will hire about 5,000 people for “medium skill” jobs if the factory ends in Austin, with an average annual salary of $ 47,147 and entry-level positions starting at $ 35,000. Tesla also said that the presence of the factory would create about 4,000 additional jobs in the area.
Tesla is considering a collection of properties known as the Austin Green development. The company has applied to purchase the land, totaling about 2,100 acres, for $ 5 million. Much of the land is currently unused, although a sand and gravel mining business is still operating at the heart of the proposed factory location. If built, the Tesla factory would be within a few miles of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The site also spans both sides of a major highway, crashing into farmland, a small park, some residential neighborhoods, and multiple new subdivisions still under construction. The southeast corner of the property is surrounded by nearly two miles of the Texas Colorado River.
“The potential is simply excellent for recreation, the beauty and the vision to potentially transform a former mining site into a sustainable factory with recreational opportunities; that is just a vision that fits perfectly with our mission,” Patel said during the meeting of the Tuesday. .
Tesla finally hopes to spend around $ 1 billion on the new factory. But the company says it is seeking relief from high Texas property taxes. Tesla is asking a local school district for a property tax exemption that would save approximately $ 68 million in 10 years, and a Travis County exemption that would save about $ 14 million in that same time period.
Other states and local governments have offered Tesla much more significant tax breaks, including the complete elimination of property taxes and other business taxes for 20 years or more, Patel said Tuesday.
“We are not asking for that in Texas, but I have asked for an agreement similar to what other big manufacturers have to make the economy work for us, but perhaps the most important thing is to provide a victory for the county. To provide a victory for the districts and a victory for the community, “said Patel.
The tax refunds being discussed in Texas are, to date, far less significant than the $ 1.3 billion tax incentive package the company received from its Gigafactory in Nevada, or the hundreds of millions of dollars SolarCity raised for its factory in New York before merging with Tesla.
Tesla has agreed to return at least 10 percent of the county’s rebate to the local community, and is already talking to local schools and organizations about possible training programs and affordable housing projects. But some Travis County residents still disagreed with the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I feel that our tax dollars could be better spent to improve what we have never addressed from day one: the horrible living conditions, pollution, crime and poverty of families living in eastern Travis County,” said Cecilia. Ryan, who lives less than a mile from the site. “5,000 jobs will not help this situation.”
Others expressed concern about the wages Tesla promises. “This proposal promotes jobs starting at $ 35,000 a year, which would have sounded great in 1985,” said one resident.
Patel previously emphasized at the meeting that the entry-level wages cited are a “floor” that “really isn’t difficult for us.” He also noted that Tesla gives all employees shares in the company.
Some residents, including local union leaders, cited Tesla’s checkered record with worker safety. They mentioned the company’s refusal to allow OSHA to inspect the Nevada Gigafactory in 2018, and the recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board that Tesla’s anti-union efforts violated the law. Travis County commissioners said Tuesday that the local UAW and AFL-CIO have spoken to the court about considering protecting working and pay conditions.
“I have heard today throughout this presentation about the wonderful employer they are. But I strongly believe when someone shows you who they are, believe them, “said Kolby Duhon, a member of the local AFSCME union for employees in Austin and Travis County.” I don’t make this accusation lightly, but Tesla’s representatives in this call will absolutely lied about their record today. “
But the most consistent theme in residents’ comments was Musk’s criticism. Several community members questioned how the Tesla CEO initially resisted California’s local county health order in March. Some were dismayed at his decision to have Tesla sue Alameda County when it wanted to reopen, and how Musk finally had the company restart production in violation of that public health order in May. Those criticisms come as Texas faces dramatic daily increases in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Elon Musk has called time and time again to reverse the widespread measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, and he threw dangerous and trumpian points of discussion about the patently false benefits of chloroquine,” Duhon said. “And when they withdraw from their part of the agreement, as a proven record of doing so has shown, they will do so as they did Alameda with better attorneys than we could afford to defend.”
“How could we allow a company to enter our community that would drag Travis County to federal court and here in Austin to receive legally enforceable health orders?” Austin resident Jordan McRae asked.
More than one called Musk a “billionaire playboy,” and suggested that he and Tesla did not need the proposed tax refunds.
“I am extremely disappointed that these tax breaks are being considered for a billion dollar company, and a billionaire playboy who does not necessarily honor all of his agreements with governments in the areas where … he sets up his company.” , Said Trish Niswander, another member of AFSCME. (Tesla is currently valued even more than that, with a market capitalization of around $ 178 billion.)
Despite these criticisms, there is an obvious excitement for the factory. Commissioners said they received letters of support for the project from Huston-Tillotson University, the University of Texas, Austin Community College, the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association, and the Austin Hispanic, Asian, Black, and LGBT Chambers of Commerce. Commissioners also said they had received about 190 emails from Travis County residents in support of the proposal, and about 60 against it.
Many of those who spoke at the meeting in support of the factory owned Tesla, and some were even employees. An assistant services manager praised the company’s “excellent affordable health care” and other benefits, which he said are the same ones Tesla corporate employees “and even Elon” have access to.
Austin resident and Tesla owner Diane Webb said she has a “strong feeling that she would now know if [Tesla] it wasn’t a good company. ”
“For me, the state of Texas has always stood for competition and the ingenuity of free enterprise. Our motto has been ‘Texas is open for business.’ And we really need to be open for this. Even if you didn’t have a Tesla, you would think the factory is a good idea. But it is not just a good idea. It’s great, ”said Webb.