MONCKS CORNER — When Berkeley County netted Google's data center in 2007, it was seen as a trophy fish: a worldwide company that's known as a charitable powerhouse and tax revenue godsend for communities.
But the search engine and advertising tech giant known for providing immediate information won't provide specific answers detailing what special incentives they've received since placing a shovel in the clay.
Nestled off U.S. Highway 52 is the company's sprawling 500-acre campus. It has themed street names such as Android Alley, the Users Way and Reboot Road. Seven massive buildings hold computer servers and offices where employees will process information that have made Google's services wildly popular: search engine results, emails from the company's free Gmail accounts, as well as viral videos from YouTube.
When the deal for the data center was announced in 2007, it was described by former Gov. Mark Sanford as a "real win for South Carolina" and the government offered $4 million in tax breaks if Google created 200 jobs.
But the company opted not to pursue that grant money that was based on creating 200 jobs. The tech giant turned to Berkeley County and they were welcomed with open arms. Berkeley County government didn't include a job creation requirement.
Berkeley County benefits financially from Google, but how much water and electricity the tech giant uses, and details of tax breaks are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements and private business negotiations. Minimal information available to the public indicates sizable bargains for the organization, while leaving the taxpayer in the dark.
The land was sold to Maguro Enterprises LLC, the company created for the Google purchase, in 2007 for $17 million. But the assessed and appraised value of the massive campus is $0, according to public land tax records.
Minimal amounts of land taxes have been paid on that plot of land.
A Post and Courier review of 10 years worth of land tax information showed that Maguro Enterprises paid $275,946 on four parcels of land — or an average of about $28,000 a year. Some parcels of Google's campus had a yearly tax payment as small as $10.
To lure businesses, counties offer incentives like tax credits, grants and fee-in-lieu of tax agreements. The companies may also negotiate with utility companies for lower rates and receive state and federal tax credits or grants.
A Google spokesman said the corporation pays large amounts of taxes on its computer servers, building values and other assets hidden by a tax agreement. The company won't publicly disclose the amount because of trade secrets.
The Post and Courier has requested the fee-in-lieu agreement under the Freedom of Information Act.
A 2018 report from Berkeley County found by The Post and Courier says Maguro paid $15 million in taxes that year. It was the most of any corporation in the county. The report also valued the corporation at $88 million.
When asked about the specifics of Google's 2018 tax payment, Berkeley County spokeswoman Jenna-ley Jamison said "Maguro takes the position that their capital investment is confidential and should not be disclosed."
By comparison, SCE&G, which was the second-largest taxpayer in 2018, paid a larger ratio of taxes to their assessed value than Google.
"They (Google) are the biggest taxpayer in Berkeley County," said Elaine Morgan, the CEO of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce. "We have a good relationship with them."
But environmental advocates, as well as economists, question Google's impact.
Last year, Google began tapping into groundwater from an aquifer roughly 2,000 feet under the Moncks Corner clay to cool the massive servers, which could have long-term environmental consequences.
And, compared with other major corporations in Berkeley County, it is not a major job creator.
Peter Schottenfels, a Google spokesman, said about 150 full-time employees work at the Moncks Corner data center. He added that there are about 400 people in other roles connected to the facility. Volvo, which has a manufacturing plant in the same county, has created more than 1,000 jobs.
Calvin Blackwell, an economics professor at the College of Charleston, said companies like Google are helpful when it comes to collecting revenue. But he argued that Volvo creates jobs that are more accessible to a more diverse class of workers, which could be more beneficial for a community.
"The sheer volume of jobs at Volvo would be of more interest to the taxpayer," Blackwell said. "I think people would like to see what those jobs at Google look like."
Google has permeated everyday life in America and many view it as a necessity.
At any given second, there are 63,000 queries being typed into its signature search engine. Alphabet, Google's parent corporation, has spent 14 years on the Fortune 500 list. It has been consistently advertised as one of the best places to work by Forbes.
When the announcement was made in 2007, the newspaper reported employees at the site would earn $48,000 a year on average. Most of the hires were engineers, electricians and programmers, trained to tune up and maintain the computers. A small staff would oversee the facility itself: landscaping, security and food service.
Perks include stock options, unlimited sick days, free meals, a gym, basketball hoops and pingpong tables. New fathers get paternity leave. The company was said to offer child care and commuter shuttles, depending on employee requests.
But the specifics of the company's effect on a local level is not as well-known.
Documents previously provided to The Post and Courier from the Partnership for Working Families include nondisclosure agreements between Berkeley County and Google. Copies of the master agreement detailing utility usage, fees and taxes are all heavily redacted.
For county officials, this secrecy isn't particularly bothersome.
"You can go anywhere in the world and they know Google," Morgan said. "You would hope that's attractive to other companies."
Drops in the bucket
The data center's massive servers get hot, and water is needed to cool them down.
Google buys most of its water from Berkeley County, which draws its surface water from Lake Moultrie. But it's not clear at what cost and how much the tech corporation uses from the utility.
Because of the nondisclosure agreement, the tech company does not even show up in end-of-the-year reports for the utility. A 2018 report about usage named Berkeley County Schools, Joint Base Charleston and Sunrise Mobile Home Park as some of the utility's top customers. Google is not named, only an entry for "undisclosed customer" appears with the usage amounts and price it paid left blank.
"All over the country and all over the world, we're seeing that Google is very mysterious," said Emily Cedzo, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League. "They certainly do a lot of good work, but a lot is secretive."
This secrecy caused concern for the Coastal Conservation League. In addition to not knowing how much surface water was being used, Google was granted permission to use groundwater from the Middendorf Aquifer some 2,000 feet underground.
Late last year, Google start pumping into the ground; it had been permitted up to 500,000 gallons daily for the past five years. But this past year, it wanted to triple that to 1.5 million gallons a day. It was after the company announced a $600 million expansion plan to the data center.
"Google is extremely protective of their usage," Cedzo said. "Tapping into the aquifer is risky because we don't know the full scope of how it will be affected. We are making these decisions without knowing the full picture."
Google's groundwater pull makes it the third-largest aquifer user in the three counties around Charleston, according to South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control records. Withdrawals evidently are taking out water faster than the aquifers can replenish. Experts aren't sure how much water can be drawn without exhausting them and concerns rise over saltwater intrusion exist once they are depleted.
A legal battle ensued between several government agencies last month and Google was allowed to get the 1.5 million gallons it sought, but it could only be used as a last resort.
A consent agreement with the Coastal Conservation League and Southern Environmental Law Center was reached early last month. The company will only pull groundwater “when all other supplies are exhausted,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a law center attorney. The tech giant must also report its groundwater usage to DHEC, which could make their amounts public.
Giving back and building up
Google also has a philanthropic mission.
Lilyn Hester, who runs Google's external affairs for South Carolina, said "goodwill is hard to quantify," but estimated that the tech company has given more than $2 million through various outreach efforts.
This includes installing WiFi on school buses heading to rural parts of Berkeley County, so students can work on homework. Berkeley County Library System was the state’s first library to have a portable WiFi and laptop computer checkout program sponsored by Google. It has given $115,000 over two years to a free Medical University of South Carolina clinic run almost entirely by students.
County Councilman Caldwell Pickney Jr. said its presence has been beneficial to the rural communities of St. Stephen and Cross that he represents.
"Google was here when nobody was here," he said. "When you look at the benefit, we've gotten Chromebooks and internet. ... These are things we wouldn't have had without them."
Berkeley County gave away about $5.1 million in incentives in fiscal year 2017, including $3.4 million in FILOTs (fee in lieu of taxes), and an additional $1.7 million in special source revenue credits — reimbursements to businesses for their real estate and investment costs.
These tax incentives have brought big business to Berkeley County. But Councilman Phillip Obie II, who was elected this past summer, said the Lowcountry has bounced back from military base closures and national economic trends. In 2007, he said they needed Google. But now, he said council can be more selective with tax benefits.
"The way I see it, the option is to have them or not have them at all," Obie said. "We either collect some tax revenue or no tax revenue at all."