Tuesday's referendum vote on tax abatements is a difficult measure to support. The Bradenton Economic Development Corporation, a public/private partnership that promotes business growth in Manatee County, is championing the policy as a job creator. However, Manatee County already has a model incentive program that provides for a rare level of accountability too often absent in such matters. We feel that blanket, up-front abatements have great potential to drain the tax base without providing adequate measurement or accountability in terms of results.
The EDC has based its argument in favor of the abatements almost solely on the notion that other counties have it, so Manatee needs it in order to be competitive. However, Manatee's current portfolio of potential incentives has served it well in terms of luring businesses, while ensuring that high-paying jobs are actually created before the rewards for them are doled out. By basing grants on payments made in arrears, based on jobs which pay at least 115 percent of the average wage, or $40,997.95 per year, the county is not sacrificing revenue until financial impact has been created.
The EDC says that there is no way to know how many relocations we have lost because we do not offer up front abatements. However, they fail to acknowledge that it is also likely that many of the businesses that came to Manatee County based on existing incentives would have held out for the property tax abatements, had they been available.
Once a county begins offering abatements, each business will come to the table with knowledge of that incentive. Only a fool would fail to represent a relocation as hinging on securing such largesse. Last year, Manatee County successfully lured Feld Entertainment, despite competition from Sarasota County, who had the benefit of historical ties to the company, as well as abatements. Manatee was able to add seven-figures worth of incentives to the state's already considerable package and make a deal that we can only assume would have been even richer, had this policy been in place.
The issue also raises the question of how much meddling in the marketplace a local government ought to do, and we question whether it is fair to existing businesses if a competitor can come into the marketplace with the immediate advantage of lower operating costs. Free markets have long been the mantra of a Republican party that portends to loathe efforts by governments to “pick winners and losers in the marketplace.” We find it curious that this board, in which six of seven commissioners are members of that party, so often vote to do just that. For another example, just see the other item on Tuesday's ballot – the half-penny healthcare sales tax – a measure that stands to put millions of taxpayer dollars into the coffers of profitable private businesses.
We find each proposal to be troubling for various reasons, not the least of which has been the manner in which they have been presented. We are equally concerned, however, that taken together within the county's 26/13 plan, they represent a major shift in tax philosophy, in which special interests benefit disproportionately, at the expense of average citizens.