FARGO — He's been called "Dr. No" for his votes against tax incentives at Fargo City Commission meetings for companies wishing to expand or locate in Fargo or for new apartment building projects.
But Tony Gehrig, a two-term commissioner and the highest vote-getter in the 2018 city election, joked that he'd prefer to be called "Captain No" as he's a captain and pilot in the North Dakota Air National Guard.
He's not one bit regretful about his "no" votes on tax breaks and a few other budget issues as they fit into the small-government libertarian ideology he espouses.
A Forum review of 20 months of City Commission votes recorded in minutes from meetings through August show he had 77 “no” votes, with about 51 of those, or 66%, cast against property tax incentives for businesses or development companies, including several projects in downtown Fargo.
Before voting no on such tax breaks, he said he asks developers or business owners if they would build without the incentives — and he said he almost always gets the same response of “yes,” although some hesitate or cast doubts. He said he can recall only one time where a business owner flat-out said "no" in response to the question.
Gehrig was, thus, thrilled late last month when he found out about what is perhaps the biggest economic development project in years with the intense speculation that Amazon is building a distribution center in north Fargo and will do it without city tax breaks.
City Strategic Planner Jim Gilmour said in regard to the Ryan Companies project, which is thought to be the developer behind the Amazon building, that in early discussions, the Minneapolis-based developer did indeed say they would not apply for property tax incentives.
"That's a huge win for the city," Gehrig said.
He said it reinforces his belief that tax breaks aren't needed to have businesses locate or expand here.
"We can grow our city and add more jobs without offering these ridiculous incentives," he said. "At the end of the day, many of these businesses would come here or expand anyway."
His argument is that the city offers a huge and successful airport along with two interstates and a reliable workforce "that wants to work."
Gehrig said he's not verifying that Amazon is building here as city officials or Amazon haven't confirmed such a project, but he did say they voted on a rezoning near the airport for what they thought would be someone interested in building a factory here. What Amazon would bring, he said, would be what is thought to be a $100 million investment in a 1-million-square-foot building, with a projected workforce of 1,000 employees and wages of $15 an hour or more plus benefits.
"All of that and no incentives," he said
While the city waits for official word on the Amazon project, those involved in economic development efforts for the city certainly don't agree with Gehrig's views.
Gilmour said in an email that "any primary sector company can apply for tax incentives when they are adding primary sector jobs.
"Sometimes the incentives are an important factor in getting companies to locate in Fargo, sometimes it isn't a factor," he said.
"If Fargo stops providing incentives, especially to smaller start-up business or high-tech companies, I think we will have less of this job expansion in Fargo. Some businesses will go to other cities," Gilmour said.
Emails and calls weren't returned by officials at the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp., whose leaders have spoken in favor of tax incentives along with business owners and developers at City Commission meetings several times.
Kilbourne Group, which has been a beneficiary of many of the tax incentives as it works to develop downtown, said in a statement that before the programs were created and offered by city leaders there weren't any building projects downtown.
"Without the programs, our projects in downtown Fargo could not move forward," said Mike Allmendinger, president of Kilbourne.
He said building in downtown is more complicated and expensive than building on undeveloped land, such as the projects springing up in south Fargo.
Allmendinger said the city also has policies and programs to support new residential subdivisions in that part of the city through bonding and financing that they offer to developers. He said Gehrig is a supporter of those aid programs. However, he said Gehrig doesn't support infill in current neighborhoods through these temporary property tax breaks.
Allmendinger said the tax incentives used by Kilbourne are designed to draw private investment into downtown.
"Fargo has revitalized century-old buildings and rebuilt on sites that were cleared more than 40 years ago to make room for parking," he said.
"The new efforts have turned downtown into a growing neighborhood with a range of housing options and a center of commerce," Allmendinger said.
While most of Gehrig's "no" votes are in opposition to tax breaks, the others have been mostly budget items, including voting against midyear pay raises last year for city police and firefighters and bus drivers to make them more competitive to attract and keep employees. Gehrig said with salaries and benefits being close to 70% of the budget, the pay raises can have a big effect on overall spending.
What he really objects to are large increases made in the midst of a budget year, he said, such as for those city employee pay raises, that aren't planned for ahead of time. The city is currently going through the final budget planning process this month before finalizing spending for next year.
Gehrig was the lone "no" vote on last year's overall budget, although he voted for the preliminary 2021 city budget in July. That prompted Mayor Tim Mahoney to wistfully "thank" Gehrig for supporting the new financial plan at that City Commission meeting.
Gehrig, however, told The Forum he may not vote for the final budget this month. Despite "a lot of good things" in the plan for 2021, he still wants to see some changes and has forwarded his concerns to the mayor.
"If the changes aren't made, I won't be voting for the final budget," he said.
This year, he also voted against aid for a Career Workforce Academy and a financing plan for the new Mercantile Parking Ramp going up on the north edge of downtown. He also fights against special assessments that are put on resident property tax bills for infrastructure projects in the city and always urges steps to lower what he calls "the most-hated tax."
Gehrig, though, isn't always "Captain No."
He often joins fellow commissioners in unanimous votes. During the 20-month period that was reviewed by The Forum, there were more than 600 such votes by the full commission, although many were routine votes for such things as infrastructure bids, change orders or zoning changes.
Looking at only this year, Gehrig has been gaining competition for the "no" votes from Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who sometimes strongly speaks out against certain issues.
Through August, Gehrig had 17 "no" votes and Piepkorn had 16 in 2020, although Piepkorn is always supportive of tax breaks as he believes they are needed to move the city forward. However, that gave Piepkorn a total of 29 "no" votes during the 20-month period, about half as many as Gehrig.
Six of Piepkorn's 16 "no" votes were in just one meeting this year in July, when he voted against mask-wearing resolutions, an organization looking into city racial issues, liquor license matters, a police issue and a decision to look further into making Juneteenth a city holiday.
Gehrig has continued his anti-tax incentive votes again this year as more than half of his 17 votes were against such breaks.
Commissioner John Strand also has been known to vote "no" on certain issues, including opposing a few property tax breaks, especially when they deal with new apartment building projects. He points to vacancy rates and his desire for more affordable housing. He had 27 "no" votes in the 20-month survey period.
Mahoney and former Commissioner Tony Grindberg, who finished his term in June, each only had eight "no" votes, according to the review. New Commissioner Arlette Preston had just two "no" votes in her first two months in the position.