Business

What happens if GE’s jobs don’t pan out?

General Electric Co. plans to move its headquarters to this site in Boston’s Fort Point.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

General Electric Co. plans to move its headquarters to this site in Boston’s Fort Point.

If General Electric does not create the number of jobs it promises at its new corporate headquarters in Boston, the industrial giant “absolutely” will lose some of the $25 million in tax breaks the city offered to woo the company, according to a top Walsh administration official.

Boston’s economic development chief, John Barros, said the incentive package the city is still negotiating with GE will include a so-called clawback provision that allows the government to recoup a portion of the 20-year tax break if the company does not live up to terms of the deal.

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“Clawbacks have been part of how Boston structures its tax deals,” Barros said in an interview. “This is nothing new.”

However, the bulk of the aid offered to the company — $120 million for infrastructure improvements from the state of Massachusetts — will not have a similar provision. Those funds will be spent up front, before it is clear how many jobs the company brings to Boston. And once the money is spent, it can’t be taken back.

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GE has said it would employ 800 people at the new headquarters. But city and state officials said they are still hashing out job targets and other specifics of the deal to relocate GE’s world headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to a 2.5-acre site in Fort Point.

The company declined to comment.

Clawback provisions are increasingly common in large economic incentive deals, giving state and local governments a measure of protection in case promised jobs don’t pan out.

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The biggest example here is Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., which in 2013 repaid more than $4 million in state incentives tied to its expansion in Boston’s Seaport District after layoffs put it below employment goals. Then in 2015 the company agreed to forgo $3 million in city property tax breaks after it again fell short on jobs.

But state officials say they can’t attach similar protections on their money. That’s because the state funds will be invested in hard assets on and around the GE campus, such as street, sewer, and sidewalk improvements, or the renovation of the two old warehouses on the property.

Paul McMorrow, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the money cannot go directly to a private entity such as GE; rather it must serve a public purpose, and the improvements must be be publicly owned.

Indeed, McMorrow noted, the money would probably take the form of a grant to either the City of Boston or the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which would own whatever is built.

“It’s not a financial transaction between the state and GE. It’s between the state and the city or the BRA,” McMorrow said. “We’d be granting them funds to make public improvements. I don’t know how you could claw that back.”

The protection for the state and city, both McMorrow and Barros said, is the improvements would be publicly owned. So if GE, for some reason, chose to leave, the BRA would own newly rehabbed buildings that it could market to another company.

That strategy makes sense, said Billy Soo, an accounting professor at Boston College who follows economic aid issues and has studied the GE deal.

Unlike income tax breaks or the upfront cash some states offer to woo big companies, real estate is something GE can’t take with it out of town.

“Tying it to fixed assets that are not movable is a great idea,” Soo said. “It ties them here.”

The trick is making sure that whatever gets built with the public funds has a real public benefit, added Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. It can’t just be about what GE needs.

“If what we do makes that site more attractive to people in general, then we don’t have to worry so much about what in particular GE does,” Berger said. “The danger comes if it’s too narrowly tailored to one company.”

Still, the state program does little to guarantee any particular number of jobs at the GE site. It’s designed, McMorrow said, to trigger additional private investment, in this case the $80 million to $100 million that GE says it plans to spend building the Fort Point campus. GE would still have spent that amount of money even if, for instance, five years from now it employs 600 people instead of 800.

But Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington organization that monitors corporate subsidies, said Massachusetts could figure a way to tie its public aid to job targets.

“You could attach a clawback to it,” LeRoy said. “There’s a taxpayer investment getting made. Taxpayers have the right to get back some of their investment if the return on that investment is not what it was supposed to be.”

Clawbacks or no, most of these deals don’t really pay off for cities, said Daphne Kenyon, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge who has studied business incentives. In many cases the company would have come anyway, she said, meaning the money is spent for no real gain.

“Ninety percent of the time, it’s a waste of money,” Kenyon said, though she allowed that wooing the global headquarters of GE with a package built largely on infrastructure spending is a better deal than most.

“This might be part of the 10 percent that makes sense.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.
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