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After Giving Away Millions, Columbia Cnty Econ Dev Incentives May be Heading Into Prime Time

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Early Tuesday afternoon, a subcommittee of the County's Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) met with Suwannee County Economic Development Director Alvin Jackson to discuss Suwannee County's Economic Development Incentive Program. Columbia County has been flying by the seat of its pants for years, giving away millions of dollars in incentives without any plan.

Background: IDA to EDAB
Industrial Development Authority to Econ Dev Advisory Board

In 2011, during the Columbia County reign of terror, the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) was deep-sixed and the Economic Development Department was created.

The word about Columbia County had spread far and wide and many talented candidates for the newly created position of Economic Development Director steered clear of the infamous good ole' boy county.

On October 6, 2011, then County Manager Dale Williams added a 12th hour resolution to the evening's agenda establishing the Economic Development Advisory Board. Its members were for the most part, the old IDA members.

Joel Foreman

Conflict Counsel and local attorney, Joel Foreman was the attorney for two county commissioners, Jody DuPree and Rusty DePratter.

Even though the EDAB only acted in an advisory role, the resolution establishing the committee made it mandatory that an attorney attend every meeting. That attorney was Joel Foreman.

In April of 2012, the County passed an ordinance authorizing the EDAB to make "non-recurring" economic development incentive recommendations. There was no plan.

Three years later, in April of 2015, the County 5 passed a policy giving the Economic Development Director complete authority to negotiate economic development incentives for the "purpose of securing a commitment" to locate in Columbia County. The Economic Development Director's deal had to be approved by the County 5. It did not have to be reviewed by the EDAB.

Buisnessman Glenn Owens (file)

The April 2015 policy required the Economic Development Director to complete a six-page Economic Development Project Work Sheet.

During the recommendation and approval process of recent County 5 approved economic development incentives, Economic Development Project Work Sheets have not been completed and provided to the County 5.

Finally, in August of 2015, the County 5 restated and updated the October 2011 Resolution establishing the EDAB.

Economic Development Incentives in a 5 Year Time Warp

Businessman Stephen Douglas (file)

Back in September 2011, the County Economic Development Department was without a director and having difficulty finding one. County 5 Chairman Rusty DePratter and EDAB member Glen Owens were having difficulty obtaining economic development incentive information from other counties. Mr. Owens and EDAB member Stephen Douglas were appointed to a fact-finding committee which was asked to forward "its thoughts and ideas on incentives" to county management.

Five years later, in October of 2016, Mr. Owens and Mr. Douglas were still working on an economic development incentive plan.

On October 25, 2016, Suwannee County's Economic Development Director, Alvin Jackson, was invited to come to Columbia County to explain Suwannee County's Economic Development Incentive Plan.

Alvin Jackson Explains

Glen Owens and Stephen Douglas were joined by EDAB member, FPL's Jeff Simmons and Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter.

Alvin Jackson

Mr. Jackson explained that he had been involved in economic development since the early 90's, when he was the Economic Development Director for Lake County.

Mr. Jackson appeared to be ahead of the curve as he explained the Lake County plan, "It was a performance-based program. The concern back then was corporate welfare. And a lot of communities were just giving dollars out. My county commission wanted to drive job creation and capital investment... The part that was missing from many programs was the capital investment piece. Most of the incentive programs drove just jobs."

The current Suwannee County Incentive Plan is point-based. Mr. Jackson explained, "The reason for the point system. Incentive programs tend to be very political: based on who knows who; who can lean on the commissioners. My commissioners did not want to be in that position. If they qualify, fine; if they don't, they want to be able to stand behind a program."

Mr. Jackson continued, "When you talk about [economic] development in our communities you are talking about retail and commercial. Those are the ones that are going to create more jobs, much more than industrial."

He added that in Suwannee County, the County Commission did not want to exclude retail and commercial from the process.

Your reporter asked about wage qualification. "Is there a wage level that a business would have to meet or be disqualified?"

Mr. Jackson answered, "No. There are no minimum wage qualifications. If the company doesn't meet lowest level on the incentive wage scale, they just do not receive any points."

Mr. Jackson continued, "The whole intent -- what do we want in our community? Jobs and capital investment. Capital investment drives ad valorem taxes."

Mr. Jackson came with an imaginary project which supported his thesis that economic development drives ad valorem taxes. The project, which he claimed was based on a real project, showed a land purchase of $20,400; wages including benefits for 20 jobs totaling $700,000 in yearly wages; new commercial construction valued at $148,748; and equipment purchases of $644,600.

Mr. Jackson pointed out that before the project took flight, annual ad valorem taxes were $479 and that after the project was completed the taxes would have risen to $15,095.50.

"That's economic development," he said.

Based on the Suwannee County formula, this imaginary company would have been entitled to a tax rebate of $15,095.50 annually for four years.

According to Mr. Jackson's analysis, the return on Suwannee County's $60,000 tax rebate is minimally $4,903,370.

Suwannee County has changed its tax rebate policy. It no longer offers tax abatements and only offers tax rebates. This means that anyone who is awarded a tax rebate must pay the taxes first.

The maximum Suwannee County ad valorem tax rebate is now 75% for 4 years. Suwannee County also will rebate up to 50% of tangible property taxes.

Mr. Jackson told the group, "We consider our economic development incentive package to be performance-based: you create the jobs; you create the capital improvement. All we plan for is for you to create jobs and capital investment."

After some discussion, Mr. Jackson continued, "I've seen communities deal with everyday projects that become political footballs."

Stephen Douglas responded, "That's how some of us feel on the advisory board. It needs to be cut and dry. That's how it needs to be."

Long time Board member and successful business owner Glen Owens added, "There are businesses that are coming anyway... They're smarter than we are right now, because they've figured out a way to work this thing. There is no doubt about that."


The committee thanked Mr. Jackson. He left.

The committee spent the next three hours continuing the economic development incentive plan discussion: a discussion that began in 2011.

The St. Johns' plan, a plan which has been widely vetted by the state, was completely ignored.

It is not clear what will happen next.

Columbia County, the legend continues.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On October 28, 2016, a Lake City resident wrote:

Of course they have a plan: known as Idiotic Impulse Improv, more commonly used in theatre circles to Improve creativity and communication between public speakers, actors and untrained people. Wait---I Might also be describing a current political campaign.

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