The general election in Manatee County on Nov. 8 will include a referendum that could continue a policy of allowing commissioners to grant property tax exemptions to new and expanding businesses.
"It gives us a competitive edge," District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said of the policy.
Known as the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption, the policy was originally approved by voters in 2013 but is now pending renewal after its term of 10 years.
Florida's constitution specifically permits counties to hold a referendum to grant commissioners this ability, while state statutes outline the specific situations in which incentives can be instituted.
The statutes permit commissioners to offer tax exemptions to manufacturing plants, as well as other “target industries” that are defined by criteria of future growth and stability, relatively high wages, independence from local markets, the effect of diversifying local businesses, and a positive impact on state and regional economies.
The statutes also limit these tax exemptions to businesses that will establish 10 or more new jobs with above-average wages in one of the target industries, will create at least 25 jobs while selling more than 50% of products outside the county, or will be office spaces newly domiciled in the state and housing 50 or more employees.
Exemptions are additionally permitted for businesses located in enterprise zones, or areas designated for a variety of tax breaks and economic incentives, and in brownfield areas, which are abandoned or underutilized facilities where environmental contaminants are considered to create barriers to development.
Although counties have the option to place an alternate referendum text on the ballot to limit the exemptions to businesses located in such areas, Manatee County has not opted to do so.
All exemptions would be approved individually and would involve a public hearing by the County Commission.
Public figures respond
While the policy evoked a range of responses from members of the public, Baugh said it was essential to maintain it, as most other Florida counties provide similar benefits to businesses.
She said the goal of the policy is to draw many large businesses, including corporate headquarters, to the area.
She said the county needs to diversify the businesses that establish themselves in the area beyond the most common types, such as farming and real estate, with a particular focus on manufacturing.
"We want to have high-paying jobs," she said. "Manufacturing is the way to go."
Baugh said there was a place for manufacturing businesses in Lakewood Ranch, as they already exist in areas that include the Corporate Park.
She also said that incentives would be based on an analysis of the level of employment the companies achieve, with comparisons to the median salary.
She said the move would be a joint effort, with the county working with certain companies to train employees through county programs, including ones at Manatee Technical College.
Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., also favored the policy.
“The only downside is not having it,” she said. “If we did not have it, we’d be the only county in the Tampa Bay region that does not have this incentive.”
Hillstrom said policy's effectiveness can be studied in granting tax breaks to two companies brought to Manatee County: Allied New Technologies and Power Design Resources.
She said those two businesses have made a combined capital investment of $94.6 million into their businesses and have created a combined 116 new jobs with higher than average wages.
She called the approval process for new businesses “very transparent” and emphasized the existence of specific guidelines in the state statutes.
“There is nothing that can be manipulated one way or another,” she said.
She also concurred with Baugh’s comments that the tax exemptions were necessary in order for the county to maintain its competitiveness.
“This is a tool that some businesses interested in expanding and relocating want to be able to pursue,” she said. “There are very specific qualifications necessary for companies to be eligible. Overall if we don't have this opportunity, we are at a competitive disadvantage.”
Responses among citizens regarding EDATE varied. Many were unconvinced that if the referendum was approved, it would be used in their best interest.
“My concern is there is so much development going on, it is impossible to travel anywhere,” said Country Club’s Kerry Gordon, questioning whether tax incentives might be offered to businesses that would further increase growth in the area beyond what its infrastructure can handle.
He said he was finding it difficult even to visit stores such as Home Depot, to fulfill basic needs.
Lakewood Ranch’s Paula Albero said she felt there was too much political turmoil and chaos in society, for major policies to be implemented, and did not want the measure to be approved even though it had already been present in the past.
“People are not as available or aware of meetings and such that are going on, and it's not enough of a percentage of people who are having a discourse about it," she said.
Braden Woods’ Laura Zane-Nwagbaraocha was not convinced the exemptions would be implemented fairly.
“I feel like anytime you give people unchecked power, you don't know whether or not they're giving without strings attached,” she said. “Are they giving because it's benefiting the community, or are they giving because of a quid pro quo? There are already too many questions about our commissioners to give them additional power."
She also questioned why only certain businesses should receive exemptions. “Why do they get to pick and choose?” she said of the commissioners. “Either give an exemption, or don't.”
She said she didn’t feel that a public hearing would improve the situation, as the decision would ultimately fall on the commissioners.
Her friend, Esplanade’s Erika Walker, concurred.
“If I had a business, I would look at this as, why are they getting preferential treatment?” she said. “These people just come up out of nowhere, and you're going to give them exemptions because they're creating jobs, while I still have a "For Hire" sign out?”
Some residents said they were uncertain about the referendum.
Lakewood Ranch’s Steph Kane said the ballot item was too vaguely worded, and she felt that more effort needed to be put into conveying its meaning to voters.
“To an average person with a college degree, it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Braden Woods’ Fernando Vega, who owns the cryotherapy business CryoXL, called the tax exemptions an example of why he preferred the area of Lakewood Ranch to open his business in the first place.
He said Florida offered multiple exceptions in the realm of taxes, and said he feels tax breaks are one of the main reasons he has been able to operate his business in Florida for the past seven-and-a-half years.
He said an additional tax break of $2,000 would be enough for him to bring on board a part-time individual on weekends, to help staff the trailers that provide services to student athletes.
He also said the referendum would benefit local businesses, as well as bringing in families to the environment of Lakewood Ranch.
He hoped the incentive could bring businesses performing clean manufacturing into the area. He said even small tool and dye companies are creators of jobs, employing around 300 people.
Lakewood Ranch’s Jan Diago said although he supported the goal of the referendum, it would be pointless without more affordable housing in the community in which workers for the businesses can live.
He said he is currently living in apartments off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, unable to acquire a full-size home in the area.
“I enjoy all these new businesses coming to where I live,” he said. “But I can’t even afford to find a house. I feel like Lakewood Ranch is trying to separate itself and become its own entity, its own city. But they also have to think about the people who are going to live in that city.”