Behind the tweets - Page 3

How the Twitter tax break grew into an expensive giveaway that involves police patrols, a new Muni line — and a lot of real estate

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In 2009, Twitter vowed to stay in SF, something it now says it won't do without a multimillion-dollar tax break

As OEWD staff prepared memos for the mayor and supervisors on Jan. 13, they also discussed talking points for the media and how to share credit for those outside City Hall. As Cohen wrote to another OEWD staffer, "Randy Shaw — we are crediting him with coming up with the idea. He told me he talked to a bunch of people, including supervisors, and got lukewarm reception."

That assessment runs contrary to how proponents have publicly claimed the idea has enthusiastic support in City Hall. Indeed, it wasn't until Egan's report came out one day before the first public hearing that proponents of the deal started discussing why they had expanded the boundaries so far.

 

QUESTION OF ALLEGIANCE

For those who aren't simply fiscal conservatives who automatically support corporate tax breaks, the wisdom of this deal relies on whether people believe Twitter is headed to Brisbane if its demands aren't met.

"The real question is do you believe Twitter is leaving if they don't get this," Egan said. "It's impossible to say."

He's convinced that the high stock option price tag would be enough to cause most companies to leave town. But OEWD seems to just take corporate claims at face value, as it did when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said he needed $128 million in public subsidies to hold the America's Cup boat race here (see "The biggest fish," Nov. 30, 2010) only to later agree to a greatly reduced public subsidy.

Even the two supervisors who are sponsoring the legislation, Kim and Board President David Chiu, don't seem to have had the opportunity to assess the deal free of OEWD's advocacy for a company that has refused to share any financial records with the city.

Matz set up phone conversations between Twitter's Rowghani and Chiu and Kim on Jan. 21, sending the two supervisors an e-mail that day recommending they ask three questions of Twitter: why the company needs the tax break, whether it would commit to keeping its entire headquarters here, and what community partnerships it would commit to.

She then sent Rowghani an e-mail that same day letting him know what the supervisors would be asking and what they wanted to hear. Matz told him both supervisors support the deal "but need to hear from you how and why payroll taxes moves the needle for you."

Matz told us she sees nothing wrong with coaching Twitter.

"It was more like facilitating a first date between friends," Matz said of sharing information with Twitter. "I was simply trying to facilitate a productive conversation."

Drafts of a community benefits package were watered down to please Twitter, the documents show. Language claiming that Twitter will try to hire more San Franciscans who don't have four-year college degrees became a pledge to work with city officials on "a mutually agreeable program to train" those individuals.

In the end, even Matz admits that the community benefits agreement is too weak and vague: "We want to work with them in making that stronger," she said.

Shaw, the records show, functioned almost as a de facto member of the OEWD staff, strategizing with officials while writing articles in Beyond Chron.org that tried to retain a thin veneer of journalistic objectivity, such as "Landmark Measure Would Revitalize SF's Mid-Market and Upper Tenderloin Area," which he wrote and forwarded to Matz on Feb. 8.

"Article is perfect. This is game-changing, largely for the signal it sends about the city's commitment to improving the area," she wrote in response.

 

FACTS AND FICTIONS

In addressing progressive critics of the deal, Kim said she greatly improved the proposal before agreeing to sponsor the legislation, insisting that its duration be reduced from eight years to six, its boundaries be expanded, and the payroll tax exclusion be limited to new jobs that a company creates rather than all its employees.