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Pinellas quietly agrees to give aircraft company a tax-refund subsidy

Without discussion, the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday voted to subsidize a local aircraft company that has twice failed to secure tax breaks from the state Legislature.

Avantair opened shop at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in 2005 and moved its headquarters here from New Jersey a year later. In February 2007, the company went public.

During the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions, Avantair sought tax breaks, warning it may leave Florida. The bills, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, failed to pass.

The commission was more obliging, and with its vote committed a $177,600 tax refund to the company. State officials and Gov. Charlie Crist's office must still approve the payout. If they do, the state will pitch in an additional $710,400 in tax refunds.

Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said after the vote that he didn't know Avantair had unsuccessfully gone to the Legislature for help. But given what the company pledges in return for tax relief, Stewart said he would have voted the same way regardless.

"It's the kind of program that we would support to bring industry and create jobs," he said. "I think it's a good investment."

Avantair plans to spend $13-million on an expansion and another $1-million on equipment. It is to create 222 jobs at the airport that will inject an estimated $26-million into the economy annually.

The jobs must be at or above 150 percent of the county's average annual wage, a figure that stands at $54,521. Avantair doesn't get any of the tax refund money until the jobs are in place.

Avantair did not return telephone calls for comment.

The company sells what amounts to shares in its fleet of Piaggio Avanti seven-passenger aircraft.

The "fractional ownership" approach offers an alternative to commercial air travel for individuals and businesses.

Pinellas economic development director Mike Meidel said Avantair employs about 200 people in the county and has struggled with the state's tax structure. Unlike in other states, the company must pay sales tax on aircraft purchases in Florida, he said.

According to Meidel, the company can get around that requirement by purchasing planes and then stationing them outside Florida for six months. The maneuver helps, Meidel said, but is not efficient.

"They are operating at a competitive disadvantage in Florida due to our tax laws," he said of Avantair.

In keeping with confidentiality rules for economic development approvals, the company was unnamed in government documents, one of which notes that Avantair is considering a relocation to Georgia or South Carolina.

Interim County Administrator Fred Marquis confirmed the company's identity for a St. Petersburg Times reporter. Marquis said he feels the confidentiality rules are rather bogus.

"I think it's absurd that we play that silly game," Marquis said. "The rumor you heard was correct."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas quietly agrees to give aircraft company a tax-refund subsidy 08/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2008 4:20pm]
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