Last week’s Collier County Commission meeting on the Jackson Labs project may be considered more noteworthy for what did not happen as compared to what did happen.
The issue of course was the possible funding methodologies for establishing a bio-medical research hub here in Collier County under the premise that it would produce thousands of local jobs and millions in local revenues. Our elected officials decided our input into this process was not needed and sidestepped any attempt to place the question of more taxation on a ballot this fall. Instead they created an internal loan deal which allows the funding to move forward while effectively keeping the financing details out of the public eye until well after the elections which circumvents the possibility of any timely input by voters.
The meeting was an amazing piece of political posturing. Many of the supporters were decked out in bright blue and yellow T-shirts supplied by the Economic Development Council (EDC), which is partially funded by taxpayers. The room filled early with this contingent, forcing non-supporters to go two floors up into a remote room in order to watch the proceedings, obviously making it more difficult for them to participate. Early on it was noted that this agenda item may take 5 hours to accommodate the public’s need to speak, which understandably discouraged many participants from staying so long and the crowd thinned at the lunch break.
Instead of being in-order as they registered, the order of speakers was modified. The allowed time frame for speaking was enforced for some, but not equally on all. Last minute changes to the scope of the project were introduced that impacted the analysis done to date. As a result, the process was as confusing as the outcome.
The discussion by many who spoke focused on the good work done by Jackson Labs. It would be hard for most to find fault with the lab’s genetic work to cure diseases and create drugs that can be individually tailored to be more effective. The issue of the day should not have focused on the work they do, but how the funding was going to occur and how the public would be allowed to weigh in on it. Other discussions were inconsequential.
Commissioner Tom Henning was the only dissenting vote; he expressed early on a concern over funding without a referendum. He carefully noted to the others that if they wanted to take this to the voters, that decision must be made before the end of August or the voters would not be able to weigh in on the issue. Since this was the last scheduled meeting where that decision could be made, last week’s actions squashed any possibility that the voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on this issue on the upcoming ballot.
Approving use of our property taxes to fund such a special and high dollar project without voter approval is simply taxation without representation. Elected officials who are afraid to ask their constituents for their opinions on such an important matter are not representative of the people who elected them, especially when there is clearly no genuine reason not to. One speaker commented that the amount of analysis needed to understand this issue was far too complex for voters to fathom...as though our elected officials presumably have that ability while the citizens who elected them do not.
What ended up being approved appears to be a creative financing method, using our tax money, which will delay the inevitable until the fall elections are over. Proceeding carefully is a good thing, but using the fact that the state has not confirmed their funding commitment in order to avoid a voter referendum is not appropriate reasoning. Staff was directed to look into an internal loan between county departments for interim funding until such time the state ponies up with their side of the deal. Once they do, presumably then our elected officials, who believe they know much more than we do, will decide how to permanently fund this without our consent.
The internal loan between departments is supposed to be $28 million, which staff has said is possible to fund based on available resources — $28 million of our money, the decision to avoid voters has obviously already been made. It is interesting to learn that we have that much money sitting in-between departments available for discretionary use.
The manner in which this entire process has proceeded is very confusing. The motivation behind last week’s vote to seek funding that circumvented the public is confusing. If this is truly the great deal for this county that our elected officials believe, there would be nothing to lose by taking the decision to the voters.