ST. PETERSBURG — Under a shroud of secrecy, the city and county have approved millions of dollars in tax incentives to persuade Jabil Circuit, one of the Tampa Bay area's largest high-tech employers, to stay put.
The biggest chunk of the $34.4-million incentive package would be paid by the state. The city would contribute $12.7-million and the county about $1.7-million through grants, tax refunds and new road and utility improvements benefiting Jabil.
Secret negotiations to keep the company and its 1,900 jobs here began in October after Jabil announced it was looking to relocate, possibly out of state.
Even as government officials faced their own budget crises, they worked quickly to pull together enough cash to dangle in front of the global electronics manufacturer.
In return, Jabil must hire 858 new workers at an average annual salary of $42,685 a year, or 115 percent of the area's average wage. Jabil must also build a new $49-million campus, generating about $300,000 annually in new tax revenue to the city.
The county and city estimate the deal would produce an annual economic impact in Pinellas of $68-million.
Jabil, headquartered at Gateway Business Park, is also considering relocating to Michigan or California. Company officials acknowledged on Wednesday that they had talked to local and state officials and were looking to relocate, but they did not want to comment further.
Jabil unveiled plans to build a 2-million-square-foot headquarters on 94 acres in St. Petersburg two years ago, but never followed through.
Government officials took extraordinary steps to keep the incentive deal from public view.
In two separate meetings, the County Commission approved the deal without mentioning which company would benefit. County Administrator Fred Marquis confirmed it was Jabil.
The city, however, took the secrecy further by quietly adding the incentive package to its council agenda just hours before a June 19 meeting. The council approved the incentives without any discussion or mention of what they were voting on.
It was buried with dozens of routine matters that were voted on as a group, making it nearly impossible for the public to know that the city was committing millions in public dollars to a private company.
"When I voted on it I didn't even know who it was. I thought it was Raytheon at first," said council member Karl Nurse. "The thing that made me comfortable about the idea was the wages that the company was paying were way, way above average."
The City Council's actions violated the spirit though not the letter of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, said Adria Harper, director of Florida's First Amendment Foundation.
"The whole point of the Sunshine Law is to give citizens a window into the government process," Harper said.
"So if we don't know that there is going to be a meeting about a critical issue, then we have a problem."
City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who missed the council vote, said Mayor Rick Baker told him about the deal months ago but told him not to tell anyone.
Secrecy is sometimes required to get things done, Bennett said. While most government records and meetings are public, state law allows cities to shield economic development deals.
"I can't say that it is right or wrong, but it happens a lot," he said. "I understand the concern, but if you were to let Jabil slip through your hands, is that the right thing to do?"
Baker, in Japan for a goodwill trip, could not be reached.
The County Commission on Tuesday approved a tax refund for a Jabil expansion that totals $4.7-million. Of that, Pinellas would be responsible for nearly a half a million dollars with the rest from the city and the state. The city's $12.7-million commitment comes from a combination of state, federal and local dollars, with $11-million of it earmarked for transportation improvements.
State officials have 90 days to approve the incentives.
Cristina Silva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.