CLEARWATER — The idea has been on the back burner for years.
To lure new companies to Pinellas County or encourage existing businesses to expand, the county would offer tax exemptions on tangible property such as buildings and machinery. In the midst of a financial crisis, however, officials were reluctant to ask voters to give the government the power to forgo tax revenue.
That changed with lightning speed on Tuesday, when a unanimous commission voted with little discussion to approve a referendum for the Aug. 26 primary. If supported by a majority of voters, the commission could grant qualifying businesses an exemption for up to 100 percent of the assessed value of improvements to real and tangible property.
The board did not review the proposal in a workshop as it often does for ballot initiatives. After the meeting, commissioners said they were comfortable asking voters to put Pinellas on a level playing field with 38 Florida counties with similar programs.
"We need to move the county into the 21st century in many different ways, and this is one of them," Commissioner John Morroni said.
Economic development director Mike Meidel did not give a presentation Tuesday but met with commissioners in recent days to explain the plan.
In an interview, Meidel said he wanted to ask the board to approve the referendum years ago, but former County Administrator Bob LaSala wanted to wait.
"He didn't want to bring it forward because he felt like the county needed every penny of revenue it could get," Meidel said.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough approved its incentive program in 2010, the city of Tampa the following year. Voters in the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo all did the same in the last few years, which means the county incentive could be combined with city tax breaks to further sweeten a prospective deal.
When the economy improved, Meidel said, LaSala agreed it was time to float the idea, but he was abruptly fired in April. Meidel got the okay from interim County Administrator Mark Woodard to bring the item to the board.
The state Constitution gives counties and cities the power to grant exemptions, and the requirements are set by state law. The minimum number of new jobs required ranges from 10 to 50, depending on the type of business. The average wage must be above the local average. Another referendum would be required in 10 years to renew the commission's authority to grant exemptions.
Beyond that, local governments have flexibility to negotiate contracts based on their specific needs, Meidel said. Each project under consideration would have to be reviewed by the board and approved under a separate ordinance. Unlike the state's Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund program, the board will know the identity of the firm before approving a contract.
Companies granted the exemption would have to document the number of jobs created and their average wages. The commission can revoke the agreement if benchmarks aren't met.
Meidel didn't have examples of companies that decided not to come to Pinellas because of the lack of an exemption incentive but said it's hard to know how many dismissed the county in the early stages.
Before Tuesday's vote, Commissioner Norm Roche said he supported the measure but asked to move the referendum to the Nov. 4 general election ballot "to gain the highest level of (voter) participation."
No one supported the idea. The primary is still more than two months away, said Chairwoman Karen Seel, allowing time for voters to learn about the referendum. Meidel said the county will publish the ballot language and a short summary in legal notices in a local newspaper.
Commissioner Janet Long said her concerns about how quickly the item came up for a vote were quelled after she met with Meidel.
"Anything we can do to be competitive to bring big corporations here to employ our citizens is a positive," she said.