After tweaks, EEZ program application approved

Lisa Damschroder and Mark A. Loveridge of the Sarasota County Planning Services Department discuss the EEZ Pilot Program application form with the County Commission. Photo by Norman Schimmel

With the Sarasota County Economic Energy Zone Pilot Program having begun July 1, the County Commission on June 27 approved an application for firms to fill out so they can be considered for financial incentives to participate in the program.

In the same resolution, the board also adopted the processes it will follow for reviewing applications and selecting the participants.

The 4-1 vote followed some tweaking of the application proposed by staff.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton cast the “No” vote, consistent with his previous votes against the pilot program, which is one of only two approved for the state. The other will be in the City of Miami Beach.

“The program started off as something very different from what it is now,” Thaxton told The Sarasota News Leader. “I’m just fearful that the end product is not something that is going to promote clean energy or energy-reduction goals.”

In 2009, the Florida Legislature created the pilot program “for the purpose of developing a model to help communities cultivate green economic development, encourage renewable electric energy generation, manufacture products that contribute to energy conservation and green jobs, and other activities related to energy efficiency and land use planning,” a county staff memo points out.

As required by subsequent state action, the County Commission on Feb. 22 adopted an ordinance establishing the EEZ incentive program. That ordinance set out eligibility criteria for applicants seeking state and local incentives within the EEZ.

The maximum amount of state credits, refunds and exemptions that each EEZ governing body may provide to eligible businesses as incentives is $300,000 in any state fiscal year (July 1 through June 30), according to material provided to the County Commission. However, if the capped amount is not fully used in one fiscal year, it can be carried forward for up to five years.

During the June 27 discussion, Chairwoman Christine Robinson told staff she was “a bit concerned” about several items on the application. “These are items that we never discussed as a board together,” she added, but the application made it appear they had to be filled out for a firm to be considered for incentives.

Robinson pointed out that the board already had set out the eligibility criteria for participation in the pilot program.

Elizabeth “Lisa” Damschroder with the finance office in the Planning Services Department, told Robinson that staff had added those items “to try to stay true to the intent of the EEZ Program.”

Among those items was a section asking what impact the firm’s operations would have on local transportation infrastructure. Another asked for a description of “how the project minimizes the environmental impact beyond what is required through regulatory and land planning requirements.”

“It’s not clear that they can elect or not elect” to fill out those sections, Robinson added.

Amy Meese, general manager of the county’s Natural Resources Department, told the commission staff could refine the language in the application to make sure it was clear that those sections were optional.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta said it appeared seven other sections could be considered bonus items. He suggested the word “Optional” in bold print be placed above each of those sections, so anyone filling out a form would understand that it was not necessary to include that information.

However, Commissioner Nora Patterson said she did want company representatives to fill out Section 13, which asked for the average annual wage “of all employees currently working at your facility and anticipated new jobs as a result of this project ….”

“I certainly don’t want it optional that they tell us what the wages are,” Patterson said.

Damschroder replied that the county ordinance creating the EEZ Program had nothing specific in it referring to wages, though the ordinance made it very clear what types of permanent jobs would have to be created for a firm to be considered for incentive funds. Nonetheless, she said staff could revise the application to make sure the wages item was not optional.

Robinson reiterated, “Items 16 and on were the ones that are really new ….”

“So maybe we could start with 16 with the word ‘Optional,’” Patterson said.

The other commissioners concurred.

After staff made the changes and submitted a revised application for the commission to consider, the board took the 4-1 vote.

Although he said he felt the EEZ Pilot Program was one of those county initiatives that had morphed over time into something different from what was originally presented, Thaxton told the News Leader he was hopeful he would be proved wrong about how it turns out.

Still, he said of his June 27 vote, “I am erring on the side of caution.”