Back in the early 1950s, singer and actor Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded a classic country song entitled “Sixteen Tons.” The song was about a laborer who worked all day long loading sixteen tons of coal only to get another day older and deeper in debt. The lyric then says: “Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
The song refers to a man working in a mining town where the company owned most everything in town including the general store; it was a “company town.” These towns were usually single employer towns in remote or rural areas. Most of the time they were mining or manufacturing businesses. Because they were the only employer in the town, virtually everyone who lived in the town worked for the same company.
People in town followed the company protocol — you did what the employer wanted or you didn’t work at the company. My experience with company towns dates back many years ago when my parents bought a house in a small former mining community in northern Wisconsin. All 200 homes in the town, as well as the general store, were owned by the mining company. When the mine closed, the company put all the homes in the town up for sale. Only retirees or individuals who thought they could find other work or commute to other work bought homes in the town.
Today, there are few company towns left and the few that remain are quite different. In Minnesota there is a major employer with a new concept for the “company town.” The employer is the Mayo Clinic and the new “company town” is Rochester.
The Mayo Clinic approach to ruling over the city is different than the small mining community in northern Wisconsin that I remember as a boy. In the case of the Mayo Clinic, they want to make the entire city of Rochester into a development zone for the benefit of their enterprise.
It’s a unique plan where all state revenue generated within the city of Rochester including income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes and business property taxes would be placed in a fund for the sole purpose of funding what the Mayo Clinic wants to build.
An appointed nine-member “Rochester Area Medical Center Development Authority” would decide how hundreds of millions of state taxpayer funds will be expended. The stated purpose of these funds is to make Rochester a global medical destination, i.e. promote, develop and help build whatever the Mayo Clinic wants. The funds can be used for either private or public projects including sports, recreation, transportation, retail, housing, dining or entertainment. In other words, almost anything and everything that the Mayo Clinic wants.
The Medical Center Development Authority is to have two elected officials from Rochester, two state legislators (which would most likely be from Rochester), one county commissioner from Rochester and four appointed members who also will likely be from Rochester. It is obvious that the Mayo Clinic will control and direct everything the Medical Center Development Authority does.
While all Development Authority plans must have a public hearing, the nine-member board can change its plans at any time. The Development Authority is given broad powers, even the authority to acquire property by eminent domain. It is permitted to sell bonds with up to 30-year terms and the legislation says that the Development Authority is pledged up to $75 million per year in state general fund revenues to pay the debt on as much as $585 million in bonds.
The simple reality of this proposal is to make Rochester a “company town” and in this case the “company” is the Mayo Clinic. All tax revenue will flow to the “Medical Development Authority” and the authority will spend the money the way the Mayo Clinic wants.
If you live in Rochester, you won’t have any choice but to work, shop, eat and partake in community activities, while all your income and sales tax dollars support the Medical Development Authority. Just like in the old days, there is no escaping having to support the company town. Based on the members of the Legislature who are the key authors on the bill, it looks like they already owe their souls to the company store.
Former state lawmaker Phil Krinkie is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.