Texas County Draws Static for Apple Tax Vote
County Commissioner Greg Boatright was ecstatic when Apple Computer Inc. decided to build an $80-million, 700-employee complex in Williamson County, a rapidly growing, onetime rural enclave north of Austin. A $750,000 tax abatement to ease Apple’s expenses was virtually assured.
But when Boatright learned in September of Apple’s policy granting health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees, he abruptly withdrew his support.
“It boiled down to weighing economics against moral and family issues,” said Boatright, 35. “Common sense tells you (homosexuality) is a perverted lifestyle; it just goes against nature completely. I’m not going to vote for something that violates my conscience.”
On Tuesday, Boatright joined the majority of county commissioners in voting to reject the tax abatement, 3 to 2. Apple, which had instituted the benefits policy in July, immediately said it would look elsewhere to locate its plant.
By Wednesday, local business people were calling for the commissioners to reconsider, state officials were scrambling to salvage Texas’ pro-business reputation and gay rights organizations were condemning the commissioners’ action.
David Smith of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said the commissioners’ action is “the first time a government entity has used its authority to punish a company which has independently decided to treat its gay or lesbian employees fairly. It’s a very dangerous situation to allow your religious beliefs to interfere with public policy decisions that affect thousands of people.”
“We’re trying to rally the business community to call and write the commissioners to reconsider and reverse their decision,” said Phil Brewer, president of the Chamber of Commerce in the Williamson County town of Round Rock.
In the meantime, “people from all over the state are calling to say if Williamson County doesn’t want Apple, we do,” said Kathy Schwartz, a spokeswoman at the Texas Department of Commerce. The department’s executive director, Cathy Bonner, said that the Williamson vote “is an isolated case and does not reflect the way the majority of communities and the state of Texas itself approaches site selection decisions.”
Located 15 miles north of Austin, Williamson County has rapidly grown from a community of cotton farms to a technology center whose corporate citizens include Dell Computer and Westinghouse. The proposed complex, which includes telemarketing and customer support operations, would have permanently housed 700 Apple employees currently working in three separate leased buildings in Austin.
Glenn West, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, blames the commissioners’ vote on “a very fundamentalist Christian group exerting power in Williamson County, and it’s not representative of the rest of Texas and certainly not of the Austin metropolitan area.”
But Bill Lawson, a councilman in the Williamson County town of Cedar Park, said that “it’s time people take a stand on the issues, and in the 1990s that’s not a popular choice. The gay lifestyle is wrong. Period.”