County Commission planning thorough discussion of how to approach incentives issues in the future

One board member indicates money set aside to help lure firms to the area could be put to better use in aiding local companies

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

After turning down the opportunity to use state and local tax incentives to try to secure the relocation of a national firm’s corporate headquarters to Sarasota, the Sarasota County Commission has asked County Administrator Tom Harmer to oversee a thorough staff report on the process that led to the May 24 discussion of “Project Mulligan,” followed by recommendations for future board action.

Referring to funds the county has set aside for tax incentives, Commissioner Charles Hines suggested, “Maybe we take this money and think of … other ways to use it,” such as partnering with the private sector in a program that would lead to the creation of higher-paying jobs at existing county firms.

Harmer pointed out that representatives of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County already are scheduled to make a presentation to the commission on June 21 about their strategic planning. He said he would make certain the report was completed prior to that, so the commissioners could take that opportunity to ask questions of the EDC group.

Commissioner Christine Robinson brought up the issue during the portion of the board’s regular meeting on May 24 that was devoted to business the members wished to raise for their colleagues’ consideration.

Earlier that day, the board voted 4-1 — with Commissioner Carolyn Mason in the minority — to deny a total of $1,584,000 in state and local incentives to a national roofing company that EDC President and CEO Mark Huey said had the potential of creating $100 million in annual economic impact on the county when the firm was fully staffed. The county would have paid $216,000 over eight years to fulfill a state requirement of a 20-percent match for the incentives package. Altogether, the county would have paid $720,000 over five years if the company provided all 180 county jobs that it had promised. The $720,000 represented $4,000 per job, with the firm asserting its average starting wage in Sarasota County would be $58,757; that is 150 percent of the average annual county wage.

An in-depth look

County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo
County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

When Robinson raised the matter on the afternoon of May 24, she said she was still trying to understand whose responsibility it was to handle various aspects of the incentives process in the county. The background material provided to the commission in advance of the meeting was prepared by county staff, she pointed out, but Huey was the one who made the presentation. Further, she said, “I think we have some line-blurring” in regard to who is responsible for outreach to the public about such a proposal.

Prior to Huey’s appearance, the board heard protests from 19 representatives of roofing companies, or organizations in Sarasota and Manatee counties whose members are small businesses, including roofers and other contractors.

“I’m throwing an idea out,” she continued: asking Harmer to have staff provide a detailed report of the process from the time a representative of the county is contacted by a firm interested in earning tax incentives until the time the matter comes to the County Commission for action.

“I was shocked to learn … that the board doesn’t vote on [such packages],” Chair Al Maio said of the EDC.

Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning, representing the EDC, pointed out during public comments that morning that the guidelines do not permit such action by the EDC board. “It is not something that is ever going to come before the EDC, except, perhaps, as a discussion item,” Bentley explained, referring to an incentives package.

“I think we need a lot of clarification,” Maio told his colleagues that afternoon.

An in-depth explanation of the process was what she proposed, Robinson added.

“I am interested in that,” Maio responded.

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. Rachel Hackney photo
Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. Rachel Hackney photo

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo also noted the lack of certainty provided by Huey in response to Robinson’s and Hines’ queries that day regarding whether a vow by the national roofing firm not to hire any employees of existing Sarasota and Manatee roofing companies and contractors for eight years would be legally binding.

A better understanding of all the issues would enable the commissioners to be better prepared to ask appropriate questions, Caragiulo added. “You can’t really ask any questions if you don’t know what to ask specifically.”

The draft agreement the commission was given, Caragiulo noted, appeared to be “boilerplate … pretty much soup to nuts.”

“Let’s make sure we get the procedure right,” Hines concurred. Moreover, Hines said, “If I’m Mark Huey right now, or Jeff Maultsby, I might be a little confused … and a little gun-shy” about bringing another prospect to the County Commission at this point.

Maultsby is the county’s director of business and economic development.

Robinson pointed to another factor for consideration: the county’s lack of initiatives specifically to help small businesses. She added that several of the roofing company representatives that morning had talked of their difficulty in hiring and keeping qualified employees.

Robinson then referred to a March 23 presentation about the success of a precision machining program at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota. The County Commission contributed funding for the equipment so the Sarasota County School District could get the program established quickly after CareerEdge Funders Collaborative demonstrated a need for it in 2012 through a survey of manufacturing companies in the region. Miryea Eavey, executive director of CareerEdge, told the board in March that the organization is working on an updated study regarding regional manufacturers’ employee demands.

Mark Huey. Photo courtesy Bayfront: 2020 via YouTube
Mark Huey. Photo courtesy Bayfront: 2020 via YouTube

“I think we need to start paying attention to what’s going on here as well,” Robinson added. “We need to re-examine what we’re doing and what our focus should be.”

After the board returns from its summer break — which begins in mid-July and concludes in mid-August — the commissioners should decide how they want to proceed, Hines said. His fear is that Huey soon will ask for another set of one-on-one meetings with the board members about a prospect seeking incentives, and they will not know what to tell him, Hines added.

The discussion about the best course for the county in the future might take more than a few hours, he pointed out.

“We can lay out some next steps for the board” at the conclusion of the staff report Robinson had requested, Harmer said.

“Is everyone fine with that?” Maio asked. No one demurred.