Manatee avoids business tax by giving EDC $400K

BRADENTON — Avoiding the wrath of small business owners opposed to a business tax, the Manatee County Commission approved Tuesday a one-time grant of $400,000 to the Economic Development Council.

The Economic Development Council, a division of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, will use the funds to expand its program to bring businesses to the county.

In a 5-1 vote, with Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes voting in the minority, the commission added the $400,000 to the budgeted $196,000 it was planning on approving during its meeting Tuesday. Commissioner Joe McClash was not present for the voting.

“With the $400,000 the county is fulfilling its role to help the business community,” said Commissioner Gwen Brown, who made the motion to fund the EDC program.

But Hayes said she was voting against the motion because this was too large of an amount to appropriate without discussing the ramifications with the county staff.

The $400,000 happened to be about the same amount that would have been raised from the EDC’s plan for a business tax it asked the commission to approved two weeks ago.

Even though faced with resistance from some in the business community, the commission voted at that time to move forward with a $35 business tax ordinance and to hold a workshop on the issue. But on Tuesday, they reversed their decision and tabled the ordinance, and also postponed the workshop until some of the legal issues could be resolved.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore brought the business tax issue to the forefront again Tuesday by pulling a consent agenda item on the annual budget contribution the county makes to the EDC. The item usually sails through the approval process.

“What bothers me is the business tax,” Whitmore said. “I’ve been listening to the community and feel the community needs some education before going further.”

She said the EDC has to hear from the small businesses and to get their buy-in.

Hayes, who indicated she consistently was not in favor of a business tax, said several people in the Chamber of Commerce told her they did not know the business tax proposal was coming forward two weeks ago.

“People don’t have the confidence on how the money will be spent,” she said. “It’s like gambling that it (the plan) will work.”

Brown said several people asked her who was controlling the spending of the businesses tax, how was it going to be spent and who would monitor the spending.

Nonetheless, she said the county needed to support the EDC’s efforts to recruit more businesses, and offered the one-time grant of $400,000 proposal.

For commissioner John Chappie, it was a matter of acting now and not waiting until funds from a business tax are available.

“It’s very competitive,” Chappie said. “It’s time to get on board or other communities will take advantage” of Manatee County’s lack of action.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said the postponement of the business tax ordinance and workshop will give his staff time to answer some of the legal questions, the issue of the county tax collector charging more to process the tax than what will be collected and to educate the business community.

“It might alleviate some of the concerns about the business tax if the county puts up the money for the first year,” Hunzeker said, “and once they see how the money is spent.”

After the meeting, Eric Basinger, vice president of Economic Development for the chamber, said after the meeting he was pleased with the commission moving forward with the $400,000 appropriation.

“There’s no more critical time than now to sell Manatee County’s assets to businesses with expansion or relocations plans, Basinger said.

Acknowledging that the $400,000 was a one-time grant, he said the EDC will continue to work toward a continuous funding source for the recruitment program.

Basinger did not necessarily agree with the commission that there was a lack of community education about the proposed business tax, but said he would be happy to meet with “as many businesses as needed to help them understand why it’s needed.”

He said the EDC and Manatee Chamber of Commerce leadership did give presentations to other businesses groups over the last six months and many of them supported the business tax proposal.

“Everybody agrees that there’s a need for a recruiting effort that would create a diverse economy that can withstand economic storms better,” Basinger said, “and to create jobs to combat the unacceptable unemployment rate we have.”