One of Oregon’s smallest counties is in negotiations with one of the world’s largest companies to expand its presence there. The company’s largesse has led to a bevy of well-paid jobs, but county commissioners are hoping the next round of talks will lead to more money in public coffers.
Amazon Web Services has plans to build five new data centers in Eastern Oregon’s Morrow County, where it already has a sizable presence.
The subsidiary of the Seattle commerce giant provides cloud computing services to companies around the world, but it needs large data centers to house the servers that power it.
Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty explained why a county of 11,000 people would be attractive to a company like Amazon: cheap power, access to water and plenty of land.
Other large tech companies like Google and Facebook have flocked to rural Oregon to take advantage of those features as well as a favorable tax environment. Amazon is no different.
Starting in 2012, Amazon Web Services signed several property tax agreements with the Columbia River Enterprise Zone, a joint effort between the county, the Port of Morrow and sometimes local cities.
In exchange for exempting Amazon from property taxes for five or even 15 years, the company would make predetermined payments to the county and promise to offer jobs above the average annual wage in Morrow County, in addition to other considerations.
But a decade into their partnership, Doherty isn’t sure the rising tide has lifted all boats. While the commissioners were working on the county budget, he said they learned from local food pantries and the county justice court that the need for financial assistance was growing.
Doherty said he doesn’t blame Amazon for the previous enterprise zone agreements. But the county could use greater contributions from Amazon to pay for public services like road repair and addressing the county’s groundwater nitrate levels.
As a part of their preparation for negotiations, the commissioners hired outside legal counsel to assist them.
“If we’re not lifting everybody up, if we’re just getting the front end and making the rich richer, that there is something else that needs to be done,” Doherty said. “And so we needed to slow down and take a much more holistic approach.”
Property tax records show the chasm between what Amazon’s property is worth and what it’s paying in taxes is wide. According to the Morrow County Assessment and Tax Department, the $11.5 million Amazon paid in property taxes during the 2021-22 fiscal year was the highest in the county, three times as much as the next highest taxpayer.
But those taxes were paid on property worth $4.4 billion in real market value. The value of the second place company’s property is $208 million.
Further boosted by a shift to online services during the pandemic, Amazon Web Services has grown to become a significant part of its parent company’s business. In 2021, Amazon Web Services reported $62.2 billion in revenue, up from $45.4 billion the year before.
While noting that the county “couldn’t give away the farm,” Commissioner Don Russell highlighted the benefits Amazon brought to Morrow County.
Although he’s not involved with this round of negotiations, Russell said he’s been involved with previous enterprise zone talks as both a port commissioner and county commissioner.
Russell said Amazon has helped the county evolve the local economy from one mainly focused on agriculture to a place where residents can grab tech jobs that pay more than $80,000 per year.
Amazon Web Services did not respond to an email requesting comment.