Community snubs Apple for gay policy


ROUND ROCK, Texas -- It sounded like a bonanza for suburban Williamson County: high-tech, high-wage jobs, 1,500 or more by the turn of the century, from a Silicon Valley giant. Apple Computer wanted to build an $80 million office complex on a patch of ranchland just north of Austin.

But shortly after Apple executives and county officials announced the plans, in tandem with a $750,000 property tax abatement for the company, two of the five county commissioners raised objections.

Apple, they noted, is one of a small but growing number of corporations that confer health benefits on the unmarried partners of their employees. That policy undermines traditional family values, they said, and Williamson County should not condone it.

Then a third commissioner, David S. Hays, who had said earlier that the county had no business meddling with the policy of a private company, announced a sudden change of heart. With nearly 70 people crowded into a small meeting room on Tuesday, one shouting that the county "was not founded on same-sex lovers and live-in lovers," Mr. Hays joined the other two to reject granting Apple any tax abatements.

"If I had voted yes," he said, "I would have had to walk into my church with people saying, 'There is the man who brought homosexuality to Williamson County.' "

The tax break was shelved.

Apple officials said yesterday that as a matter of both principle and economics the company would not build on the 128-acre site in Williamson County unless the tax break is restored, and Gov. Ann W. Richards was left pleading with the company to look at other sites in Texas. Apple officials said that while they would entertain lobbying by Texas officials for other sites, they also planned to look outside the state.

For its part, the county, which has aggressively courted other high-tech companies and even sought a state penitentiary to lure more jobs to the area, appears to have punted away a project that, according to one study commissioned by the county, would have pumped $300 million into the local economy over the next several years.

But even as many of the people here seemed a bit bewildered at the prospect of losing all those jobs -- one described the commissioners' action as "insane" -- many others said they whole-heartedly supported the move.

"It goes to what kinds of morals do you want to set for your community," said Sherry Roberts, the owner of Heart and Home, an antiques and curios store on the Western-style Main Street in Round Rock, the county's biggest city. "What do you teach your kids? That's what this is all about."

In the commissioners' vote, some people here detected the growing influence of conservative Christian-affiliated groups that recently gained a voting majority on the Round Rock school board and ousted the school superintendent in a bitter showdown when he banned public prayers at high school football games.

National gay rights groups said the vote marked the first time anywhere in the country that a government entity had sought to punish a company for extending fringe benefits to nonmarried partners.

"It's a classic example of the depth of anti-gay feeling," said William Rubenstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's lesbian and gay rights project. "It's hard to believe any county in this day and age would turn down the opportunity to have Apple Computer in your community. It's remarkable that in these economically difficult times, this blatant prejudice would prevail over smart business decisions."

Actually, times are not so tough in Williamson County, and some people here said that rejection of the tax abatement was a kind of luxury in which county leaders would perhaps not have indulged a few years ago, when fallout from the oil bust ravaged virtually the entire state.

Round Rock, at the edge of the central Texas Hill Country and the closest major community to the planned Apple site, has evolved from a predominantly agricultural area with a population of 2,400 in 1970 to a remote suburb of 37,000 people, many of whom commute the 15 or 20 minutes south to Austin for work. The official county unemployment rate for October was 3.5 percent, barely half the state rate, according to the Texas Employment Commission.

Still, many people here go out of their way to say they live here because it is not Austin, which generally has a reputation as Texas' most liberal city. Earlier this fall, Austin became the first Texas municipality to confer health benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of its municipal employees.

Bill Keegan, a spokesman for Apple, said in an interview yesterday that company officials thought the Williamson County site was "an ideal location for us" and had been surprised by the commissioners' vote.

Texas taxes are lower than those in California, and the relaxed Hill Country lifestyle, coupled with its seasonable weather, are thought to appeal to much of Apple's young work force.

With annual revenues of about $8 billion, Apple is the second-largest maker of personal computers in the world, after International Business Machines.

Mr. Keegan said state and company officials had both approached the county about reconsidering its rejection of the tax abatement. But two of the commissioners have remained adamant in their views. And Mr. Hays, despite having written a letter to the Round Rock Leader newspaper the day before the vote in which he said government "should not be a social engineer" and "should not tell industry how to run its businesses," said he could not be persuaded to return to that position.

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