Hillsborough officials want to know whether financial firm qualified for job subsidies

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials want to know whether a major financial firm just approved for more than $1 million in subsidies to stay in town actually qualifies for the money.

They say they are perplexed by an assertion this week from PricewaterhouseCoopers that it never intended to move those jobs out of Hillsborough County in the first place.

"We are now trying to understand their statement," said Bonnie Wise, the county's chief financial administrator, tasked Tuesday with doing just that. "Because it does seem to be inconsistent with what we understood."

At least one Tampa City Council member says she, too, wants an explanation. Mary Mulhern said she will ask staff to pursue one.

"The issue of trust is incredible," Mulhern said. "The taxpayers and their elected representatives were misled."

In the past week or so, county commissioners and Tampa City Council members approved giving PricewaterhouseCoopers $1.1 million to keep 1,633 jobs here, something not previously done locally. Part of the award also recognized 200 jobs the company promised to create, toward which the county in May already had pledged $120,000.

The state had pledged another $800,000 to the project.

The firm wasn't initially named under state rules that allow such incentive deals to be negotiated in secret.

Under the plan, dubbed "Project Escape," the firm said it would build a $78 million office and sign a long-term lease there.

Economic development officials said the existing jobs in Tampa were "at risk." An application, prepared by the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said the business had competing offers from South Carolina, India, Singapore and Argentina.

Then Monday, PricewaterhouseCoopers announced it was the company in question. It said ground would be broken on a new 10-story home this week in the West Shore area. An estimated 2,200 of its employees at two locations in Hillsborough County will move there.

And then this: "We never considered moving those 2,000 jobs out of Tampa," the company's Florida market managing partner, Mario de Armas, said of the company's operations hub on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

That has elected officials who just voted on the subsidy deal raising their eyebrows.

"Somebody's integrity is in question," said County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham.

Those involved in brokering the deal said they can't talk much about it yet. They said they are still bound by state secrecy rules until the business agrees to ungag them.

But Ken Norden, the president and chief executive of the Economic Development Corp., which local governments pay to spearhead efforts, said nothing has changed. In terms of the existing jobs, he said the firm weighed keeping them at its current locations in Tampa or signing a 13-year lease at a new building.

Had the firm decided to stay put, it was subject to short-term leases. That makes its jobs here vulnerable every time a lease comes up, particularly for a large, multinational business always evaluating how it deploys its work force.

"I guess the company felt they were at risk," Norden said. "Certain aspects of the operations could be at risk with a short-term lease in future years, whereas this is a commitment to 13 years."

Norden said it was understood that the risk of jobs moving to other locations applied only to the 200 positions getting created. However, the application for the incentive money used by elected officials to inform their decision made no distinction between the two pools of employees, existing and new.

Further, the managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' real estate, Willem VanDooijeweert, wrote the county's economic development office July 13. His letter, with the subject line "Project Escape," indicated the company would be considering "alternative site scenarios."

That letter came after commissioners' initial approval in May of the $120,000 to lure the 200 new jobs. It also came a month after plans for the first phases of the construction project were filed with the city.

Norden said the investment in a new building and lease represents a solid, long-term commitment to Tampa. He noted that the money will be paid in installments starting in the fifth year of the lease, ensuring jobs stay here if the company hopes to collect.

In an e-mail statement, PricewaterhouseCoopers spokesman Steven Silber said: "This project is a win for all parties — for Tampa taxpayers, for Tampa's economic development and for the people of PwC, who are committed to the greater Tampa community for the long term. We look forward to maintaining and potentially increasing our work force in Tampa."

One person not overly concerned about what the company said this week compared with what it said in its application is Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. He said he's not concerned because the deal will prove to be a good one over the long haul, including city taxpayers contributing half of the subsidy.

Buckhorn said he thinks revisiting whether Pricewaterhouse­Coopers actually qualifies for the money will send a poor signal to the business community.

"It's a competitive environment," he said. "I'm certain that they shopped their options. I don't know that for a fact, but I've got to believe that they did.

"In the larger scheme of things, this was a worthwhile investment and over time will inure to the gain of the taxpayers significantly."

Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.

Based on government documents, PricewaterhouseCoopers has several times made promises to create jobs here that never materialized. Since 1997, the company has entered into four previous agreements with state and local authorities to receive tax rebates for creating high-paying jobs. Had the firm met requirements of the agreements, it would have received millions of dollars in rebates for creating at least 1,045 jobs. However, three of the agreements were a bust. Only one made it past the first year: a pledge in 2005 to create at least 320 jobs paying at least $49,000 each. For meeting those terms, the firm was eligible to receive up to almost $1 million from the city, county and state.

Earlier job vows often went unfilled

Based on government documents, PricewaterhouseCoopers has several times made promises to create jobs here that never materialized. Since 1997, the company has entered into four previous agreements with state and local authorities to receive tax rebates for creating high-paying jobs. Had the firm met requirements of the agreements, it would have received millions of dollars in rebates for creating at least 1,045 jobs. However, three of the agreements were a bust. Only one made it past the first year: a pledge in 2005 to create at least 320 jobs paying at least $49,000 each. For meeting those terms, the firm was eligible to receive up to almost $1 million from the city, county and state.

Hillsborough officials want to know whether financial firm qualified for job subsidies 07/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 8:21am]

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