The loss of Jabil Circuit Inc. would be a serious blow to St. Petersburg, but the lack of public scrutiny for $34.4-million in proposed tax incentives is bad business. At a time of unparalleled financial distress for state and local governments, the lack of public debate is simply stunning.
The St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission approved the incentive package with barely a whisper. Newly seated council member Karl Nurse admitted he had no idea that "Project Extreme," as it was called on his agenda, was in fact Jabil. At least now he is asking for a review. The other council and commission members who approved it unanimously have not made a peep.
The next step for this package is the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, which is paying the lion's share of the money. Gov. Charlie Crist, an avowed fiscal conservative, should not let the deal advance without some straight answers to some legitimate questions.
How do we know Jabil isn't bluffing? The company says it might move its headquarters to Michigan or California, but Crist will want to know what public offers are being made there.
Is $34-million a reasonable investment? The company promises to add 858 new workers to the 1,900 it already employs, but the total would still fall short of the 3,000 it once employed in the region.
Is the incentive fair to other struggling employers? Large and small businesses are being forced to shed jobs as the economy unravels, but the state is not offering incentives to keep those jobs in place.
The nagging backdrop to this deal, unfortunately, is a state economic development office with a history of neglect and an electronics manufacturer with a propensity to ship its jobs overseas.
The state has such an abysmal track record that it once awarded a $4.5-million incentive to Motorola for the creation of 1,000 new jobs in Plantation even as the company was laying off 1,000 workers in Boynton Beach. Jabil, for its part, has moved most of its 75,000 jobs abroad where labor is cheap. In closing its Oldsmar facility five years ago, the company actually had workers train their Mexican replacements before the layoffs took effect.
The granting of public money to private companies should always be handled with utmost care and strict accountability. That is not what has happened to date with the Jabil deal, and it puts taxpayers at considerable risk. If this package makes good economic sense, then it should be able to withstand the kind of scrutiny that comes with broad public exposure. Crist, the St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission owe taxpayers that much.