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Tampa economic development officials adopt new rules for businesses' incentive deals

TAMPA — Hoping to avoid another communication breakdown, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. announced new policies Thursday for ushering businesses through the tax incentive approval process.

The changes would ensure that information presented to the Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council is up to date, accurate and submitted with as much advance notice as possible.

In July, both the County Commission and City Council signed off on a $1.1 million incentive package to a large, unidentified financial services firm. They were told the money was needed to keep 1,633 jobs in Tampa.

Days later, Pricewaterhouse­Coopers market managing partner Mario de Armas identified his company as the one in question and said jobs were never at risk.

Council members and commissioners questioned whether they were misled into approving the incentives. They asked for a review of the oftentimes confidential application process.

The new procedures were discussed at Thursday's Tampa City Council meeting, where council member Frank Reddick advocated for a less secretive process.

The name of the company applying for incentives shouldn't be kept from elected officials, Reddick said, even if state law allows it. The economic development staff could disclose the firm's name in private, one-on-one sessions that aren't susceptible to public disclosure laws, he said.

Voters want to feel confident that public officials weighed all the facts before allocating large sums to businesses, he said.

"These are the people that elected us," Reddick said. "These are the people that want us to monitor the taxpayers' dollars."

Council member Mike Suarez said he wants future companies to be penalized if they get incentives based on misleading or inaccurate applications.

The application written on PricewaterhouseCoopers' behalf said jobs were at risk because the company had competing offers from South Carolina, India, Singapore and Argentina.

Rhea Law, chairwoman of the Economic Development Corp., said the new procedures create additional protections for taxpayers without stifling efforts to lure new businesses or help existing ones expand.

She said all rules were followed in the Pricewaterhouse­Coopers application, and noted that the company would have been required to prove it met conditions of the agreement before it collected money.

"Nobody was ever at risk," she said.

In other action

The City Council approved a $35,000 settlement to a lawsuit filed by a man shot with a stun gun during a police incident. Juliany Zarzuela fell face-first on concrete after an officer confronted him when he exited a home on Christmas Eve 2005 while holding a beer. In a 2008 lawsuit, Zarzuela said he didn't resist arrest or attempt to run. He said he didn't understand Officer Antonio Ortega's requests, which were in English.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Tampa economic development officials adopt new rules for businesses' incentive deals 08/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 10:29pm]
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