Two years ago, in April 2015, our cover story gave readers a closer look at the world of economic development within the 850 region. We determined who was responsible for economic development and how successful they had been at the job.
We focused on the big four — Bay, Escambia, Leon and Okaloosa counties — to see what the money spent on economic development was doing to bring more jobs to those communities. But we had a hard time putting our arms around the issue. Perhaps the most important thing we learned about all EDOs, big and small, is that every county interprets job creation in its own way, that there is often little or no accountability and in some cases there is no transparency in the process, even when taxpayer dollars are being spent.
While several local EDOs have worked to shine a brighter light on what they’re doing since then, there remains no standardized method to determine who is doing what, how they’re spending their money and what the final impact is on the local economy.
In recent months, the question of accountability has focused attention on two of the state’s public/private partnerships — Visit Florida, responsible for promoting state tourism, and Enterprise Florida, established to promote economic development throughout the state.
Visit Florida, in December, came under fire for paying $1 million in a 2015 secret deal with Miami rapper Pitbull for a tourism marketing campaign. (The information was only revealed after House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed a lawsuit to compel Pitbull’s company to provide the information.) Calling for more transparency in the agency’s expenditures — and outcomes — Gov. Rick Scott declared, and rightfully so, that “taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent.” No argument there.
The spending at Enterprise Florida, which is also primarily funded with taxpayer dollars, has also been called into question by state House leaders who want to know where the money is going and how effective the state’s economic incentive program has been. In 2016, the Legislature rejected Scott’s appeal to pour $250 million into economic incentive programs. This year, Scott has pushed again for more incentive dollars.
State law requires the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to do regular audits of the state’s economic development programs. In its most recent report issued in January, the agency reviewed eight incentive programs that provided tax credits, tax refunds and cash. Projects in effect between the state fiscal years of 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 that had received cumulative incentives ranging from $100,000 to over $100 million covered 36 counties in the state.
But of those 36, only eight were located in the 18 counties of the 850 region. Walton, Washington and Bay counties each received less than 100,000. Santa Rosa and Madison counties received between $100,000 and $1 million. For Escambia, Jackson and Leon counties, the amount was between $1 million and $10 million.
While the 232 projects using state incentives have cumulatively created 33,627 jobs since their inception — and 13,327 during the three-year review period, the audit found that “the total number of confirmed jobs was less than the number of committed jobs for every incentive program.” The number of confirmed new jobs ranged from five in Clay County to 7,875 in Duval County. And in most cases, the confirmed capital commitment made by the individual companies was less than what had been promised.
The audit contains a wealth of information on the state programs, including which counties benefit the most (hint: NOT Northwest Florida), how many projects have been discontinued and how many jobs were created over a three-year period in the individual counties. In Northwest Florida’s eight participating counties, 1,986 jobs were created — 72 percent of them in Escambia and Jackson counties alone.
It’s important for taxpayers to know how and where their money is being spent. The OPPAGA report is interesting, although it would be a far better tool for the people to use if it was more explicit in what companies/businesses are getting state aid. Still, it serves as a guide for local economic development offices to regularly report all (state, local, private) expenditures, specific projects and jobs created to their constituencies — local elected officials and the public