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Opinion

The oblivious politicians

Mike Moran, Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder are on track to punish the EDC’s success. For what?


  • Sarasota
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Are they really that knuckleheaded? Are they really that oblivious? Are they really that absorbed in their perceived self-righteousness and superiority, their pomposity and drunkenness for power?

It must be so.

Otherwise, Sarasota County Commissioners Mike Moran, Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder wouldn’t have done what they did and the way they did it June 4.

Apparently seeing themselves as the vaunted, gallant, conservative protectors of taxpayers, they voted to repeal Sarasota County’s 30-year-old business tax. 

This is a tax on every business that generates $472,421 a year, 28% of the annual $1.82 million budget of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County. The EDC, of course, is the not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to help expand and diversify Sarasota County’s economy by attracting new businesses and helping new and existing businesses slosh through the county’s and cities’ regulatory quagmires.

Moran, chair of the commission, has been on a different economic undevelopment mission. Even though he said last week he’s not against having an EDC, he has chafed over the EDC’s operations since his first election in 2016 — never satisfied that EDC leaders could justify their results on a spreadsheet. 

He, like many others, saw the EDC in the mid- and late 2000s grant subsidies to businesses that shortly after went out of business. Sarasota County, mind you, while guilty, wasn’t the only place where those incentives backfired. Cities, counties and states all over the U.S. were engaged in the incentive giveaways. But Moran noted with derision at last week’s meeting the county dished out $37 million in incentives since 2009.

In 2021, when Moran previously attempted to end the business tax, he said his opposition to the tax “didn’t just spring up … From the very beginning, all I’ve ever asked for is clear, measurable goals. I made it very clear that I wanted less words on paper and more numbers on an Excel spreadsheet.” 

Last week, he said: “I want to be able to leave this commission knowing that I did everything in my power to stop this tax.”

Big talker.

Is the business tax really that nefarious? 

In conversations with executives who served previously on the EDC board with Moran, the picture they painted was he didn’t understand — or care — that economic development is not measuring how many new barbershops opened in a month or producing a monthly spreadsheet. It’s multifaceted, complicated and time consuming.

That didn’t matter. Observers of Moran have seen the same traits they’re seeing now: obstinate and a bully. Just ask members of the task force appointed by the commission to help devise a new method to distribute county funds to nonprofits. They labored for months to create a detailed plan, only to have Moran abruptly ignore it and then shove his plan through the commission. He made no apparent effort to work for any kind of mutual buy-in. My way or the highway.

With the EDC, it is more of the same: obstinance, bullying and no conciliation.

He is hell-bent on repealing the business tax. He insists the EDC should go through the county’s general fund budget process to vie annually for funding like every other recipient of the commission’s beneficence. It’s not right, Moran argues, that the EDC has a dedicated funding source — even though that is what county commissioners have agreed to do for 30 years.  

But put Moran’s tirading crusade in perspective. Consider how little tax money is at stake; the remarkable recent turnaround at the EDC; and the greater picture of Sarasota County’s opportunities for economic development — none of which had any effect on Moran or registered with Rainford and Neunder.   

In the scheme of county government, the business tax — all $472,721 of it — is a teensy pittance of 0.08% of the $561 million the county collects in taxes and fees and 0.03% of the $1.445 billion county operating budget. It’s rounding money.

What’s more, it’s not a tax that has any outspoken opposition, other than the three picayune commissioners. To the contrary, every business organization in the county endorses it, including the chambers of commerce of Sarasota, North Port, Venice, Siesta Key, Council of Business Associations, Argus Foundation, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, which together represent thousands of businesses.

It’s a tax for which nine speakers at the June 4 commission meeting pleaded with commissioners not to repeal because of its importance to their municipalities’ economy.

It’s a tax whose average cost on a business is a week of Starbucks coffee: $22.46 a year — even less for 13,209 businesses,  each of which is paying only $14.43 this year. 

It’s a tax that prompted Commissioner Mark Smith to make the paradoxical remark: “As a good Republican, we’re against all taxes. But the folks being taxed are the ones fighting to be taxed.”

How can it be that businesses want this tax to stay in place?

Because it actually is providing more value for businesses than it is costing them. It actually is providing economic growth and value to the citizens of Sarasota. 

Consider the Big Top Brewing Co. slides that EDC President Erin Silk showed commissioners last week in her presentation (see below). It has taken four years to bring Big Top’s expansion to fruition. And look at the financial results. 

Or how about this: Silk told commissioners the EDC has 14 clients in various phases of site selection, due diligence, permitting or construction, all projected to be completed between now and 2027. If all come to fruition: $49 million in new taxable capital improvements and 295 new jobs.

Or look at the “Diversifying Our Economy” slide below.

Would all of that have occurred without the EDC? No.

But it didn’t matter how much evidence Moran, Rainford or Neunder saw or heard about how the EDC has made a remarkable turnaround in the past three years. Moran, in particular, focused his remarks intensely on the past, -telling commissioners and the audience that he has “endless stories” of how things went wrong.   

It didn’t matter, either, how Silk and Vice President Joshua Ewen showed presentations that would have convinced any board of directors the EDC is the best it has ever been and moving forward still.   

It didn’t matter what Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, a current  EDC board member, said: “Frankly, I am thrilled at what I see happening. This is an entirely different organization. 

“I appreciate the work that was done in past years, identifying the problems of the EDC,” he said. “One of the phrases that I heard several times, even this morning, is that no longer exists. 

“Those things (in the past) were mistaken. They were wrong. They were a failure,” Cutsinger said. “What you do when you recognize that is you change course. You correct the failure  … And frankly, that has happened here. There has been a huge course correction.

“We’ve turned it around … Everything we’ve asked the EDC to do, they’ve done and not only done, they’ve done an excellent job.”

Nor did it matter what Rod Hershberger, former CEO of PGT Industries, told commissioners. He cited PGT having operations in five states and communities, each of which has an EDC. “What I can tell you about seeing Sarasota’s Economic Development Corp. is it is definitely in the top tier. I could not have said that five years ago.” 

Like Cutsinger, Hershberger said the EDC has fixed its problems. “But if you’re looking backward and driving forward, you’re going to run aground …  or you’re going to destroy your business. 

“… Look at the trajectory we are on,” Hershberger said. “Look how it’s performing now and think about where it will be in the future. Once you crash your business, it costs a lot more money to fix that than it does to steer it correctly as we go forward. Continue the trajectory, and let them do their work.”

No matter what case anyone made or makes, Moran, Rainford and Neunder are stuck on getting their way — without a thought to some questions you would hope would come to their brilliant minds:

  • What is broken and not working? Whose lives are being hurt? 

From all we’ve heard and seen, Silk and her colleagues are receiving rave reviews and producing economic growth.

  • What is the problem to be solved? 

If we understand this, you three commissioners don’t like that a business tax, which businesses are OK with paying, goes directly to a business organization that uses the funds to grow the local economy and tax base and to help job creators navigate the costly regulations you create. You think it would be better if the EDC had to go on bended knee and beg for that piddling amount of money each year. 

All that sounds like is you three  just want more power over the EDC.

  • What will be the consequences of repealing the business tax? 

You don’t know, nor seem to care. Every government action creates unintended, negative consequences and disruptions. A rock in a pond creates wide ripples — that will go beyond Sarasota.

Commissioner Cutsinger has it right: “What this will do is be a momentum killer in a lot of ways … You are punishing success.”

Just three more myopic, power-driven politicians who have the brass to believe they know better than their constituents.

 

author

Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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