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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
COLLIER COUNTY — Collier County residents shouldn’t anticipate a referendum on Jackson Laboratory any time soon, even though the Republican nominee for a seat on the county commission advocates that voters have their say on the proposed project.
Georgia Hiller, who won Tuesday’s three-way Republican contest for the District 2 seat, says she will continue campaigning into the November general election for a referendum on whether local taxpayer money should be used to bring the Maine-based Jackson to eastern Collier. Commissioner Frank Halas, who represents Distrcit 2, is stepping down from the board.
Hiller said she expects write-in candidate Chuck Roth will stay in the race for the seat in November’s general election.
“I am very conservative and I a not presumptive and I refuse to call it a win until it is a win,” she said.
Assuming she prevails and is sworn in Nov. 16, Hiller said the commission will still be debating the Jackson project going forward although she still backs a voter referendum.
“It’s just not realistic to speculate at this given time, given ongoing research and ongoing activity (into the project),” she said. “There’s just so much in play. This is a dynamic issue and not one set in stone.”
A referendum is a “healthy process” because it allows the public to get involved in how their taxpayer dollars are spent, she said.
The Legislature this past spring earmarked $50 million in first-year funding to help lure the nonprofit genetics research institute to Collier, using land that the Barron Collier Co. would donate near Ave Maria. Since then, the community has been embroiled in a debate whether the project could create jobs and help diversify the economy.
A sticking point is a required local match of $130 million dollars and uncertainty about the state coming up with its remaining $80 million in future years.
The state’s first-year pledge of $50 million hinged on another federal stimulus package, something that was held up in Congress and didn’t get approved until earlier this month.
In late July when the federal stimulus was uncertain, the commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Tom Henning dissenting, to keep the project alive by potentially providing $28 million to Jackson as first-year funding. A motion by Henning for a referendum in November failed.
Hiller said she hopes the board keeps an open mind even though a majority of the board, based on the July vote, would not go forward on a referendum. In effect, she would be a second vote for a referendum but a third would be needed.
“Jackson is one of many issues our county has to deal with,” she said. The economy and what we are going to do with the foreclosure crisis and overtaxing and over regulating are far more serious issues than Jackson.”
As she stated previously, Hiller wants independent experts brought in to evaluate the Jackson project, given that the county’s advisory board, the Productivity Committee, only had a consultants’ report backed by the Economic Development Council for its evaluation this past summer. The committee decided in late July that the Jackson proposal was not economically viable based on the information they had at the time.
“They did a fine job within their means and time constraint,” Hiller said, adding that she would not want the productivity committee brought back into the fold of a future evaluation.
“If this project is as good as (Commission Chairman Fred Coyle) wants us to believe, then why not put it to a referendum? To not give the public the respect it deserves and not allow them to decide is fundamentally unfair,” she said.
Coyle said no decision has been made whether the Jackson project will move forward or not, and he said the July vote on the $28 million internal loan was done in case the county has to move quickly for the state money. No money has been exchanged and won’t be until the state money is certain.
He said the $28 million may turn out to not be necessary because private financing to some degree might develop in the weeks or months ahead. Private financing or donors might be willing to build Jackson’s genetic research lab on the land off Oil Well Road and it could be deeded to the county. He did not elaborate more about the potential private funding source.
A new wrinkle is that questions are being raised now at the federal and state level whether the state Legislature had the right to earmark money for Jackson based on another stimulus package from Congress, Coyle said. The stimulus involves the federal government picking up a bigger slice of the cost for Medicaid, which is jointly funded by states.
The Florida Legislature was looking at not having to spend as much of its general revenue dollars on Medicaid in the event of the stimulus package, and it was those state dollars that lawmakers have intended for the Jackson project, he said.
State budget committee officials are trying to resolve the latest glitch but answers are not easy to come by.
“It exemplifies how fluid this process is,” he said.
On the subject of a referendum, Coyle points out that the next opportunity during an election would be in two years. The alternative is a special referendum which is costly, and Hiller would have to get board support.
He does expect Roth, the write-in candidate, to drop out now that Hiller secured the Republican nomination. “He was set up to do that specifically to help Hiller win,” Coyle said.
The last time Collier had a special referendum outside of an election year was in November 2001, said Dave Carpenter, qualifying officer for the Collier County Supervisor of Elections. That was for a half cent sales tax increase for road improvements and it didn’t pass.
Before that, there was a special referendum by mail in July 1995 for a sales tax increase to build a second Gordon River bridge, which Carpenter said also failed to pass.
A special referendum involving voting booths runs $500,000 and the cost is a little less if a mail ballot is used, he said.
2010 ELECTIONS - PRIMARY ELECTION COVERAGE
- Results: Collier County
- Results: Lee County
- EXIT POLLS: Exit poll results in Collier, GOP governor races
- VIDEO: Hiller wins primary for commission
- VIDEO: Coyle will keep his commission seat
- PHOTOS: Rick Scott beats McCollum
- PHOTOS: Kendrick Meek beats Doug Greene in Democratic U.S. Senate Primary
- PHOTOS: Fred Coyle defeats Lavigne Kirkpatrick
- PHOTOS: District 4 Commission race: Kirkpatrick loses to Coyle
- PHOTOS: Brian Bigelow leads Lee County District 2 commissioner's seat
- PHOTOS: Runoff for Collier School Board District 1
- PHOTOS: Rosanne Winter 2010
- PHOTOS: Georgia Hiller leads district two race
- PHOTOS: Rick Scott casts vote in Naples
- PHOTOS: Florida Elections
- STORY: One judicial race too close to call, Mann a clear winner in other
- STORY: PHOTOS: Rick Scott defeats Bill McCollum in Florida GOP governor primary
- STORY: David Rivera, Joe Garcia will face off in November election for Collier’s House District 25
- STORY: Coyle, Hiller win seats on Collier County Commission
- STORY: State Senate District 27 race: Benacquisto, Merchant locked in tight race
- STORY: Nuñez and Ruiz to face off in Florida House District 112
- STORY: Steven Teuber, Elinor Scricca out as new faces take majority on Lee School Board
- STORY: Incumbent Brian Bigelow wins Lee County Commissioner for District 2
- STORY: Alex Sink wins Democratic nomination for governor in Florida
- STORY: Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio wins Republican nomination for Senate in Florida
- STORY: Meek wins Fla. Democratic Senate nomination
- STORY: VIDEO/PHOTOS: Georgia Hiller wins Republican nomination for Collier commission
- STORY: Coyle beats Kirkpatrick for reelection to Collier commission
- STORY: Florida governor election: Rick Scott holds steady lead over Bill McCollum
- STORY: Collier School Board: Six candidates head to November runoff for three seats
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