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Economic Dev. Tax Incentives Columbia Cnty Style: The Sausage Chronicle Part I - The history

In this photo from the Nov. 18, 2010 meeting, County Manager Dale Williams tells the County Commission that Nettles Sausage will not fall under the new ordinance.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Tuesday at 4 pm, the recently formed Columbia County Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) met at its offices in the Lake Shore Hospital Authority. On the docket for consideration were two requests for tax abatements from Billy Nettles, the owner of Nettles Sausage. Presented to EDAB were two recreated and unsigned letters purporting to be requests for tax abatements, backdated to March 10, 2010; a letter from the County Manager saying he had a conflict of interest -- he is related by marriage to Billy Nettles (wives are sisters) and from the Property Appraiser Doyle Crews, a letter and two undated, recently recreated and completed tax exemption applications, in which Mr. Crews denied the Nettles Sausage requests for property tax exemptions. What was the EDAB to do?

2010: The sausage chronicle began

On August 10, 2010, SLK Construction, a company owned by the County Manager's brother, Guy Williams, pulled a permit to develop a cold storage facility for Nettles Sausage, a company owned by Billy Nettles, whose wife is the sister of the County Manager, Dale Williams.

The SLK construction permit states the estimated cost of construction of the 13,250 sq foot structure as zero.

One of the sub contractors on the cold storage job was J.L. Dupree Construction, a firm owned by its namesake, Columbia County Commissioner, Jody DuPree. There are various opinions regarding how much of the job was in control of Com DuPree and why he did not pull the permit himself. No one would speak on the record.

On the same day, August 10, 2010, as the cold storage permit was pulled,  Nettles Sausage president, Billy Nettles, in one of two signed letters to County Commission Chairman, Ronald Williams, requested a tax exemption for the cold storage facility. He claimed a capital investment of $1,200,000. It is not clear how much of that was the cost of construction or the wages of the employees, which were listed as TBD (To Be Determined).

The other letter requested a tax exemption for a slaughter house being built across the street from the cold storage facility, with a claimed capital investment of $400,000. Once again the average wage was TBD. The permit for the slaughter house was not pulled for a month, when on September 18th, Commissioner DuPree's Construction Company pulled a permit on the slaughter house, of which the cost of construction was listed as $166,523.

The Nettles letters to Commissioner Williams were typed, except for all the statistical information, which was hand written in blank spaces provided. There are no letterheads.

On August 30, 2010, IDA Director Jim Poole, who was under fire from the County Commission and particularly Commissioner Jody DuPree, suggested in a letter to the County Manager that the County, moving forward, handle its tax abatements "in accordance with Florida Statute 196." (That letter is here - emphasis by the Observer)

On September 9, 2010, in a memo to the County Commission and IDA Director, Jim Poole, County Manager Dale Williams declared a conflict of interest in the sausage chronicle.

September 16, 2010

On September 16, 2010, the County Commission agenda listed the following:

Discussion and Action: Nettles Sausage/Nettles Cow Plant – Request for Tax Abatement

The County Commission minutes put it this way:

The County Manager said that there is no Economic Development Statute that would be applicable, but it is possible that this business could qualify for tax abatement according to the guidelines of Florida Statutes 196.1995(5). The County Manager said that guidelines and standards need to be adopted that can be applied to these various applications as they are presented.

Motion by Commissioner Bailey to schedule the matter for discussion.

On October 5, 2010, an extensive workshop was held to discuss the future of Columbia County tax abatements. There were pages of information provided to the Commissioners and members of the IDA. There was a recommendation to follow the Florida Statutes. This was in line with the previous recommendation of IDA Director Poole.

On November 18, 2010, the County Commission passed ordinance 2010-20, which provided for an "economic development tax exemption to induce business development within Columbia County." This ordinance was based on Fl. Statute 196.1995.

What about Nettles Sausage?

During the November 18, 2010 meeting, County Attorney Marlin Feagle told the Commission:

Any improvements made by Mr. Nettles, or any business, would not even be eligible for the exemption under this ordinance or under state law.

County Manager Dale Williams added:

The ordinance before you tonight – the earliest tax year that you can apply [for a] tax abatement is 2011. 2010 bills are out. People are already paying their bills. Everything up to this point, including Nettles Sausage, has filed application and they are going to be judged under the old process. Once you adopt this... this ordinance is not going to apply to business until the 2011 tax bill. It can't by its very nature.

The County Commission without further discussion passed the tax exemption ordinance unanimously.

One more time

The subject of the Nettles Sausage tax abatement came up only one more time, before it was brought up to the Columbia County Economic Development Advisory Board last Wednesday, when on March 17, 2011, the now outgoing Commissioner Jody Dupree told the County Commission that Billy Nettles "applied three years ago to find out what it would take to do tax abatements... that family who has given for 60 years in this community... they were assassinated and because of it they don't even want to apply. That ain't right."

Coming in Part II

Coming in part II of the Sausage Chronicle:  missing documents, recreated documents, missing dates, and the opinions of the EDAB members, such as City Manager Wendell Johnson, who put words in the mouth of Economic Development Director, Jesse Quillen,  and EDAB attorney, Joel Foreman who opined, "It's a political decision."

Correction: The County Manager's wife and Billy Nettle's wife are sisters.

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