Swiss Miss

Novartis' council support weakens as the company decides whether to come to town

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is the first trophy for Tucson's emergent economic development agency, but that prize will certainly be tarnished when the City Council votes Aug. 2 on final details of a $3.5 million tax gift to coax Novartis to bottle its Boost drinks at the abandoned Slim-Fast plant on the far southeast side.

Troubled by Novartis' hollow responses to questions about agribusiness that produces genetically modified seeds, Councilman Steve Leal is delivering a stinging slap against the company, the incentives and the people who promote it.

Leal, a Democrat and the council's senior member with 16 years, voted with the 6-1 majority on July 8 to accept preliminary details of the $3.5 million tax abatement for Novartis that would help the company buy the Slim-Fast facility, 8755 S. Rita Road, then turn it over to the city and eventually to the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, Inc. The real estate transfer would allow Novartis, which posted $1.6 billion in profits during its most recent quarter, to evade property taxes on the building and land and instead pay in-lieu taxes that will cost Pima County and Pima Community College $850,000. Councilman Jose Ibarra, a Democrat, remains opposed, chiefly because Novartis will use up to 350,000 gallons of drinking water a day at a time that Tucson Water customers are lectured to conserve.

For Leal, the vote signaled his willingness to move the process forward pending more research.

The intervening three weeks have done nothing to make Leal a supporter.

"I wanted to know who we were dealing with, because we have an obligation to the community to find out about whom we invite into our home," Leal said. "It's a moral responsibility and a fiduciary responsibility. Aside from being an extremely wealthy corporation, they have shown they have no qualms about abusing power and authority, no qualms about thwarting the Democratic process or academic freedom or tenure. They may put communities at risk by rushing to get seed products to market. Are we using public resources to reward companies that have bad records elsewhere?"

Leal also had sharp criticism for Kendall Bert, head of City Hall's economic development office and an architect of the giveaways, and Republican Mayor Bob Walkup.

"When Kendall and the mayor kept this a secret since February, they did a grave disservice to the community," Leal said.

Andrew Greenhill, chief of staff for Walkup, said Walkup only learned Novartis was the target company last month although he knew, as a member of the TREO board, that a company was being lured to replace Slim-Fast, which also received rich incentives to locate in Tucson.

"The mayor's job is to be a key leader in economic development," Greenhill said. That includes acceding to the demands of companies that want to be nameless while they are considering incentives.

Disclosure, Greenhill said, "hurts their ability to do what's right." The mayor is a cheerleader for the Novartis deal.

Leal said he is now opposed because of Novartis' role in a controversial, $25 million research deal with the University of California-Berkeley that affected--and ultimately delayed--tenure for an assistant professor who was critical of the research pact. And Leal said he is troubled that a Novartis division promotes genetically altered agricultural seed and has helped push through legislation in some states that bars local governments from instituting bans on genetically altered seed.

The European Union voted in April to ban U.S. shipment of corn for animal feed when it could not be certified that the exports were free from unauthorized genetically modified corn.

Councilman Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican, is a reluctant supporter and said Novartis "shouldn't be penalized just because it is successful. They have different divisions. Who knows what part Boost has in that?"

Dunbar's tepid support comes from her fundamental dislike for how TREO was set up. "It is made up of people who favor giveaways.

"Would I have voted for Slim-Fast? I'm not sure," Dunbar said. "I wasn't part of that deal."

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