Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Economic Development
Making it up as they go along

Members of the Columbia County Ida listen at the workshop. No one knew about the economic development ordinance that was passed in 2004. In the photo from left to right are Marc Vann, Carlton Jones, Gus Rentz, Suzanne Norris, Jeff Simmons and Gina Reynolds, who is the assistant director.

Last night, the homeless Columbia County Commission met with the IDA, the popular Doyle Crews - the County Property Appraiser; Richard (yes, this is all one person) Powell - the County's financial advisor - external auditor - budget advisor - consultant to the internal auditor; the County and everybody's Attorney - Marlin Feagle and the high priced spread from Tallahassee, Attorney Greg Stewart of the Law Firm of NGN. The county website billed the meeting as a workshop.

The County's only further description of the meeting went this way: "The topic for discussion relates to Tax Abatement which resulted from the "Agreed Upon Procedures" conducted by Richard Powell, C.P.A., Powell & Jones, C.P.A.'s."

It's likely that no one on planet earth would have a clue what the county is describing. The meeting lasted 55 minutes.

Unknown to the public and possibly some of the people attending the workshop, the real purpose of the meeting was to establish guidelines for County tax abatements and develop the criteria for an economic development ordinance.

It was clearly business as usual, as Columbia County's long time County Manager, Dale Williams, described the County's role and the Board's responsibilities in granting economic incentives.

County Manager Williams explained that the new ordinance would be in two parts. The first part would comply with the Florida statutes and the second part would be a separate memorandum of understanding, in which the county could put in what they felt was important.

County Manager Williams explained that he "tried to leave as much latitude with the board" as possible.

Neither the county staff, the county attorney, outside counsel, the IDA, or anybody, came up with any formula to keep the playing field even and treat everyone fairly.

The reputation of Columbia County as being Florida's premier "good old boy" County was further solidified when County Manager Williams told the gathering, "Just because you meet conditions doesn't mean you get the abatement."

The County's well-known "flying by the seat of its pants" methodology was exemplified after the County Manager reported that the minimum investment to be considered for a tax abatement or an economic incentive was $250,000.

Longtime resident, successful businessman, IDA board member and former county commission candidate, Marc Vann asked the County Manager, "How did you decide on $250,000 as a good number?"

The County Manager responded, "It just seemed like a good number."

The problem.

Therein lies the problem

Due diligence is a phrase that is foreign to Columbia County, a county that is locked into the ways of the past.

The county management's continuing inability to use computers, spread sheets, modern methods of cost analysis and research, and developing public policy with clearly defined guidelines, weighs like an anchor around the necks of the working families of the county, as the word spreads that while Columbia County may be a place suitable for the "good old boys" who are willing to grease a few palms or the slick and educated who can take advantage of a public management group that takes pride in being backward and locked into the ways of the past, real companies that are looking for an even playing field and a place where quality education is available for their children are staying away.

In 2004 the County unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a local economic development incentive program. The investment threshold in that ordinance is $500,000. 

The 2004 ordinance is still on the books.

During the public hearing, one of the three Caballeros, Commissioner Dewey Weaver, said at that time about the new ordinance, "I believe it's a good opportunity to help our local business."

Commissioner Jennifer Flynn told the Board: "I want to caution you all to make sure we do this in a fair manner for all businesses and that's my concern about it."

Commissioner Flynn was eventually run off the Board and out of town.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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Tallahassee: Economic Development Legislative Session Wrap-up (May 31, 2011)

Florida's Economic Development Czar Came to Columbia County - Really (May 31, 2011)

Columbia County Economic Development Blowin' in the wind - 20 years too late (March 2, 2011)

Economic Development in their own words (Jan 24, 2011)

FL Enterprise Zones under the gun (Jan 23, 2011)

County & IDA Drop the Ball - Again (Jan 05, 2011)

Columbia County's inland port decades late (Jan 03, 2010)

Columbia County ranks 5th in the nation in the unemployed (Dec 18, 2010)

IDA Continues sub par under County management (Nov 29, 2010)

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