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A Times Editorial

On incentive — misled, unprepared, both?

The global financial services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers did the right thing Wednesday by withdrawing its bid for $1.1 million in local tax incentives in exchange for growing its Tampa-based operations. The behind-the-scenes deal was rushed under a state law that grants near total secrecy to job-development deals. The few revelations so far raise serious questions about whether the firm qualified for the money and whether the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County were either misled about the application or unprepared to judge it on its merits.

City Council members and county commissioners cleared the way for the incentives last month after being told by the staff that PricewaterhouseCoopers was looking to relocate and that 1,633 local jobs were "at risk." In exchange for the subsidies, the company would stay put, build a $78 million building and hire an additional 200 workers. But only days after the deal was struck, the manager of the company's Florida operation said the firm had "never considered" leaving Tampa. The revelation left local officials embarrassed and scrambling to get their stories straight.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, to its credit, voluntarily brought an end to this troubling deal. But there are questions county and city officials still need to answer. This was not — as some want to maintain — a "communications" problem. The communications were quite clear. Both city and county officials rushed the tax breaks through their elected boards as a matter of emergency. The staff said the jobs were "at risk," that the tax breaks were for "retention" of existing jobs and that a decision by the company on whether to move was "imminent." This was billed as a make-or-break moment. In the light of day, maybe not.

The Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission should determine if the staff was misled or unprepared. They also should examine what role the private business group, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., played in steering the application through the local governments. Neither government body will learn and be better prepared next time if it allows this level of accountability to fall through the cracks. Whether the company was leaving is not some tangential issue; it goes to the core of offering tax incentives for business retention. The integrity of the program and of the people who manage it on the taxpayers' behalf is on the line.

An attorney for PricewaterhouseCoopers, in a statement, said the company "never expected controversy" and that its withdrawal would not change the company's plans for remaining in Tampa. That is good news. But the soft landing does not excuse what happened or provide a map for avoiding another blowup in the future.

On incentive — misled, unprepared, both? 08/03/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 3, 2011 6:42pm]
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