MANATEE -- Manatee County voters approved a referendum Tuesday allowing county commissioners to negotiate property tax breaks for companies bringing new jobs into the area.
With all 99 county precincts reporting, the referendum question was approved, 20,396 votes, or 52.5 percent, to 18,424 votes, or 47.5 percent.
"We're thrilled, absolutely thrilled," said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. "We're grateful and excited to be able to let the world know that we have this option available."
The idea is simple: Offer incentives, in the form of property tax breaks, to entice companies offering high-skill, high-wage jobs to move to Manatee County, as well as encourage existing companies to expand.
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"It's an important tool for job creation," said Neil Spirtas, vice president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce for small business and public policy. "We're very appreciative of everyone who helped educate the public."
The soonest commissioners would consider any tax abatement projects would be last summer or early fall, according to Nick Azzara, Manatee County information outreach coordinator.
The referendum asked the question:
"Shall the Board of County Commissioners of this County be authorized to grant, pursuant to Section 3, Article VII of the State Constitution, property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs in the county?"
The commissioners' authority will apply only to ad valorem taxes and no deal can last more than 10 years. People involved in local economic development say Manatee was the only county in the Tampa Bay area that did not allow commissions to negotiate incentive packages.
The county would have continued to be at a competitive disadvantage if the referendum had failed, Hillstrom said.
With its passage, however, "We expect to be even busier that we are already," she said.
The job of luring companies to set up shop in a community is getting more difficult, she said.
"It's very, very competitive," Hillstrom said. "We've really started to be aggressive with business recruiting in the last three to five years."
Another factor is the recent development of companies hiring site selection consultants to weed out potential sites, Hillstrom said, and tax incentives are a big selling point.
"These consultants do the vast majority of their research online," she said. "By the time you get a call to provide information, they're 85 percent done and you're already on a short list."
Jim Renzas of the RSG Group in Irvine, Calif., a site selection consulting firm, confirmed that for the types of businesses Manatee County is recruiting, tax incentives are a big deal.
"For anything that's capital-intensive, it's pretty important," he told the Bradenton Herald. But to even get to the point of negotiating incentives, a site has to make it to the final list of contenders, Renzas said.
"We begin our research and try to narrow it down to 10 finalists," he said. Then calls are made to the communities to gather data.
"Then it's narrowed down to three finalists."
After visits to the final three areas, it's narrowed to two.
"Then we start talking about incentives," Renzas said. "It's a binary game. There's only one winner. The rest are losers."
Spirtas calls the ability to offer tax incentives a "make-or-break" issue.
"I can remember when it wasn't such a big deal," Spirtas said. "But it's changed in the last few years, in economic development circles. It's a competitive game."
Steve Vernon, president of Tea Party Manatee, which opposed the referendum, said he wasn't surprised by the outcome.
"We put very little effort into that referendum, and zero dollars," he said, instead focusing on the defeat of the half-cent sales tax.
Vernon says his group wants the market to dictate economic growth, adding that incentives are a bad idea.
"We want the free enterprise system to determine winners and losers," he said. "It's a ridiculous argument."
Vernon said there are better ways to make Manatee County attractive for businesses: "Simplify regulations, reduce the paperwork, cut taxes."
He and his group will be watching what the county will do with the new authority granted Tuesday.
"We'll continue to see how they bless and who they bless with all this free money," he said. "We'll be watching."
Jim DeLa, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.