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A Times Editorial

County's subsidy deal doesn't add up

WAS IT leaving or not? That's the question Hillsborough County needs to answer about a deal to give taxpayer money to a global financial services firm in exchange for keeping its jobs in Tampa. Something here does not add up.

County officials said last week that Pricewaterhouse­Coopers was looking to relocate and that 1,633 local jobs were "at risk." So the city and county rushed approval of $1.2 million in public subsidies the company would receive to stay put and build a $78 million office. The arrangement was questionable enough, given a state law that extends near-total secrecy to job development deals. But now the city and county have some real explaining to do.

The company's managing partner for Florida said Monday that — public incentives or not — the firm "never considered" moving its operations out of Tampa. The executive, Mario de Armas, said the incentive factored only into the company's decision to create an additional 200 jobs in Tampa.

That is a far cry from the threat of pulling up stakes altogether — and far different from the facts that were represented to elected officials. An application to the county said the project related to the "retention of 1,633 jobs" and the creation of new ones. The county manager in charge said he understood the jobs were "at risk" — meaning that the money would go to retain them. County officials said the same assurances came from the private business group, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., which prepared the application on the company's behalf.

But now those involved are backtracking and splitting hairs. Elected officials say they have been misinformed. The county staff is pointing fingers at the Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that local governments pay to spearhead job development deals. The EDC is spinning the arrangement as a larger effort to give PricewaterhouseCoopers a permanent home. But that is not how the deal was presented. It was not about consolidating operations but retaining them. And now nobody wants to talk, citing the law's secrecy clause.

The county is investigating. Its first step should be to disclose its communications with the EDC and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The company has all but waived any reasonable expectation of privacy. It voluntarily identified itself as the business in question. And it volunteered that moving was no real consideration. That statement is central to the entire question of whether the firm is entitled to the tax subsidy.

This situation illustrates why the public records exemption on these sorts of deals should expire next year and the handouts be vetted in advance and in public instead of after the fact. The county has not paid out the money, and it would recoup the subsidy through new taxes and economic activity. But that is not the issue. One question is why this company's commitment is so special it warrants public support. And a bigger question is whether the county has the staff and setup to properly examine job development deals. The early answer is no.

County's subsidy deal doesn't add up 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 5:22pm]
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