News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 14, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Corporate welfare for Menards?

The Tribune-Star

---- — As near as I can figure from a recent story in the newspaper, our government representatives, state and local, are scrambling to find money to give to Menards because of a distribution center they are thinking about building on the city’s North Side.  It looks like they have come up with about a half-million ($500,000.00) so far, and it appears the County Council will soon decide whether to sweeten the deal with another $75,000.00 of our public money.

It isn’t clear if Menards has even asked, or demanded the money as a condition for their project.  Whether or not, it is unlikely Menards would turn it down.

Menards is a closely held, family corporation with annual revenues of around eight billion dollars ($8,000,000,000.00) according to reports I have read.  It appears that most, if not all the company stock is held by members of the Menard family.  John Menard seems to be the principal stockholder.  Being a private corporation, financial information about the company is hard to come by.

Forbes lists John Menard as one of the world’s wealthiest people, with a net worth upwards of five billion dollars ($5,000,000,000.00). That makes him #196 on the list of the world’s billionaires, one of the 1 percent who owns most all of the world’s wealth. It’s a great club that the rich have, but you and I aren’t in it. Are we?

The distribution facility reportedly will provide 80 jobs at $11.57 per hour. Assuming those jobs were full-time, 40-hour per week positions, that would yield an annual wage of about $24,000. Our local economic development guru cheerfully reports that this is about what distribution center jobs pay. That is about two grand more than the 2009 U.S. poverty level for a family of four.

Menards has a checkered past, according to reports. Their employee policies are shocking, and enforced with an iron hand. Conflicts between executives and employees are dealt with by docking pay, demotions, or banishment to another city. Employees often quit because the sanctions imposed are so severe and unaffordable. That doesn’t sound any more employee-friendly than the poverty wages. Of course, these are hard times, and no doubt our embattled working class would eagerly snap up these jobs.

On the environmental front, it is reported that Menards has paid several million dollars in fines for violations. Those include unlicensed transportation and disposal of ash containing cancer causing hazardous substances such as arsenic and chromium. It appears that part of that included John Menard himself taking the stuff home in his personal pickup truck and disposing of it in his household trash.

In 2003, the Minnesota attorney general charged that Menards manufactured and sold arsenic-tainted mulch in packaging labeled “ideal for playgrounds and for animal bedding.” Warning labels from the CCA-treated wood were found in the mulch.

In 2005, Menards agreed to a $2 million fine after Wisconsin DNR officials found a floor drain in a company shop that they believed was used to dump paint, solvents, oil and other waste into a lagoon that fed into a tributary of the Chippewa River. The sanction broke the previous record fine of $1.7 million set by Menard in 1997.

And there is more. A lot more. Maybe you should look it up yourself. But, Menards may have changed its ways. Do you think?

All this makes me wonder why those who supposedly work for us are searching so eagerly to find money to give to Menards.  It’s not like they need it. I suspect that the already-rich Menard family could find a half-million or so just by looking under their sofa cushions.

Well, if history is any indication, there is scarcely a doubt that their government will come up with our money to give to these folks. I can’t think of a case where “officials” haven’t broken their necks to give Big Business millions upon millions in gifts and tax breaks. It seems like it happens every day. And if business doesn’t keep its part of the agreement, it seems there are no consequences. After all, “claw-backs” (as those consequences are called) aren’t “business friendly.” We can’t have that, can we?

No wonder people around the country are getting upset about corporate ownership of the people’s government.

Where did it all begin? When will it end? Or will it?

— John C. Kite

Terre Haute