ST. PETERSBURG — City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett became the highest-ranking elected official yet to question the city's controversial handling of an incentives package for Jabil Circuit.
"I'm supportive of having a public process," Bennett told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Friday. “Does our process need fixing? You're probably right.''
New information also emerged Friday that suggests Mayor Rick Baker's staff omitted details about Jabil's plans not only from the public but the council as well.
Bennett is the latest council member to call for more public scrutiny of economic development deals in the wake of the Jabil controversy.
The council quietly approved the incentives package last month without public notice, discussion or mention of what they were voting on. It was part of the so-called consent agenda in which numerous routine items are approved all at once.
Council member Karl Nurse last week asked the council to hold a workshop on the topic, citing a growing sense of discomfort about the Jabil deal.
Nurse went further Friday, demanding that the council forbid last-minute agenda additions except in emergencies. He also said the council should no longer approve economic incentives for corporations without discussion.
"Tax incentives never should be on a consent agenda," Nurse said. "It really ought to be more high-profile than that."
Baker, who just returned from nearly two weeks in Japan, declined to comment Friday.
The incentives package is part of a city, county and state effort to persuade Jabil, one of Tampa Bay's largest high-tech employers, to stay put. Jabil has declined to say whether the incentives package, which still must be approved by the state, will do the trick.
Secret negotiations to keep the company and its 1,900 jobs began in October after Jabil announced it was looking to relocate, possibly out of state.
The biggest chunk of the $34.4-million incentives package would be paid by the state. The county plans to chip in $1.7-million. The city's $12.7-million share includes grants, tax refunds and road and utility improvements.
Jabil gets the incentives only if it hires 858 new workers at an average annual salary of $42,685. Jabil also must build a $49-million campus, generating about $300,000 annually in new tax revenue to the county.
Under state law, economic development officials must comply with a company's request for confidentiality, but council members do not.
Before its June 19 council meeting, Baker's economic development staff met individually with council members to explain the terms of the incentives package.
The council was not told which company would benefit. Instead, the company was known as "Project Extreme."
Project Extreme, the staff said, received at least one relocation assistance offer from a competing government. But on Friday, staff members said they had no documents to support that claim, only assurances from the state's top business-recruitment agency.
Council members were also not told that the city has known about Jabil's tentative plans to build a new headquarters in St. Petersburg since at least October 2006, according to public records.
In December 2006, the city's environmental development commission approved a conceptual site plan to "construct a 2.06 million SF … corporate headquarters for Jabil Circuit" along Gandy Boulevard. It's the same site where Jabil would build its new facility under the incentives package.
Jabil never submitted building permits but did use dredge material provided free by the city to elevate the land. The dirt, taken from Lake Maggiore in a cleanup project, had no value, the city said.
Dave Goodwin, the city's economic development director, said his staff could provide the council with only so much background information because of the state confidentiality law.
"We've got to be careful," he said.
Just because Jabil initiated the process to develop the Gandy site less than two years ago does not mean the company is bluffing about relocating, Goodwin added.
"They bought (the land) from someone else and they could certainly sell it to anyone else at any time," he said.
But Nurse, the city's newest council member, said it would have been helpful to have as much background information as possible. At least four of the members have less than a year on the council.
"It raises some questions about what other background information we should know," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.