MANATEE COUNTY -- A referendum on a property tax break for businesses expanding or moving into Manatee County has quietly gone forward without much controversy as anti-tax activists focus on a sales tax referendum designed to pay for indigent health care.
While it hasn't generated the same attention as the controversial sales tax, its placement on the same ballot could put it in jeopardy if voters are in the mood to go to the polls June 18 and just say no. Early voting for both initiatives begins Saturday.
Billed as a referendum for "New Jobs Now," the ballot initiative offers as much as 10 years' worth of property tax breaks for businesses that relocate to Manatee County or expand here, depending on the size of the expansion and the number of jobs the business creates.
The Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption, also known as EDATE, is designed to make Manatee County more attractive to businesses and more competitive with the surrounding counties that already have the tool, says Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation.
Manatee County misses out on the opportunity to even make a pitch to some businesses looking to relo
cate, Hillstrom said, because they don't consider Manatee to be competitive. The program was designed by the state and Manatee officials want to adopt the state initiative locally and level the playing field.
"We're the only county in the Tampa Bay region that doesn't have this tool," she said. "In order for Manatee County to be successful in attracting and retaining companies that create high-skill, high-wage jobs, we need to be on an even playing field."
The jobs, benefits and spin-off work created by a new company would make up for the property tax breaks from the county, Hillstrom said. Qualifying businesses would still be required to pay the education portion of the ad valorem taxes.
But opponents say the tax break interferes with the free market.
"Why should the county be choosing which company gets free money and which doesn't?" asked Steve Vernon of Tea Party Manatee.
The Tea Party has been a vocal opponent of the sales tax referendum and has been going door to door to defeat the health care tax. Vernon said that even though they don't have a lot of signs out opposing EDATE, they are telling voters to defeat both of the issues on the ballot.
"Essentially, the false premise here is that it's all about jobs," Vernon said. "You can do a lot of things to attract jobs without favoring one company over another. Cut taxes and business regulations across the board."
Referendum supporters have raised nearly $90,000 to get the tax passed, including a recent $10,000 donation from John Neal, president of John Neal Homes. Much of the Political Action Committee's money has come from loans from the Economic Development Corp., which loaned the campaign $75,000 between March 18 and May 22.
"Every other county in the state has incentives for business except Manatee," Neal said. "I gave the PAC supporting this initiative this substantial donation because it is crucial to allow our commission to support our business people with exemptions if they see fit. It's the right thing to do for our county."
But Vernon said the initiative gives too much power to the County Commission.
"There are better ways to bring jobs here than letting seven people choose which companies get money," Vernon said.
The EDC is focusing on attracting high-tech industries and higher-paying jobs. The organization is asking that six specific industries be targeted for the tax abatement program:
Financial and Professional Services, such as banking, insurance, engineering and accounting
Homeland Security and Defense, such as navigation aids, ammunition, optical instruments, shipbuilding and repair and computer systems design.
Aviation/Aerospace, such as aircraft and aircraft parts manufacturing, flight simulator training, satellite communications, space technologies and launch operations.
Infotech, such as digital media, software, electronics, telecommunications, modeling, simulation and training.
Life Sciences, such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, diagnostic testing and medical devices.
Cleantech, such as biomass and biofuels processing, energy equipment manufacturing, photovoltaic and environmental consulting.
Hillstrom pointed to IMG Academy, noting that it will attract industries interested in sports-related research and development and that Manatee County needs to have incentives to get them to move here.
"We are literally becoming the Silicon Valley of sports R & D," Hillstrom said. "The return on our investment exceeds what we are abating."
Toni Whitt, Herald business editor, can be reached at 941-745-7087. Follow her on twitter @toniTwhitt.