Though endorsed by all county commissioners except him, county government is seeking a court ruling on millions in public funding for private Jackson Laboratory to make sure it’s legal, says Tom Henning, this week’s guest on "One on One with Jeff Lytle.’’
This is an edited transcript of the first half; video highlights as well as partial video/texts of past interviews are available at naplesnews.com/oneonone.
The entire 30-minute program airs Sunday at noon on Comcast CN14.
Lytle is editorial page/Perspective editor of the Daily News.
Lytle:Let’s talk about a story that’s still in the headlines, Jackson Laboratory. You’re not a fan of the public financing of that to bring Jackson here.
Let me ask you, what comes next for Jackson Laboratory on the commission.
Henning: We have a request for a proposal (RFP) on private financing instead of going to bond counsel. I haven’t seen anything further on that. I looked at the agenda yesterday (Tuesday), and nothing was on there about Jackson Laboratory.
The next thing is to test in the court about bonding and the dedication of funds for that bond — whether it’s legally sufficient.
Lytle:To test in court?
Henning: Yes. The board asked the county attorney to take it to court and find out if the Board of Commissioners can finance Jackson as a private project.
And, of course, if we do that, the real question is the bond dedication, the funding source, and whether that’s legally sufficient.
Two sources they’re looking at is a new tax — or a fee, sorry — on the electric bills for the residents in the unincorporated area. It wouldn’t affect city of Marco, city of Everglades, city of Naples.
And I’m also of the understanding that Conservation Collier’s bond in going to be sunsetting, and just roll some of that millage into the general fund without sunsetting that millage.
Lytle: Is the legality of that being explored as well? Or does someone know the answer to that question already?
Henning: Those are the two funding sources. Now Jackson Laboratory wants a certain amount of money up front.
Henning: Now some believe that we have the money and we’re not going to have to raise taxes. I haven’t seen that.
Lytle:: You haven’t seen the money.
Henning:: I haven’t seen the money. You know, we don’t have a pot of money laying around to give to Jackson. So supposedly there’s going to be a loan from the Water and Sewer District to the county, and the dedication of funds to pay back that loan is ... my understanding is the two top choices are Conservation Collier monies or a new tax, fee, or whatever you want to call it, on your electric bill.
Lytle: Is it an option to get Jackson Laboratory money by making cutbacks, or further belt-tightening in the county budget?
In earlier conversations with Commissioner Fred Coyle, he seemed to put that out there as an option, that when you’re looking for Jackson Laboratory money, just take it from savings from somewhere else.
Henning: There is no savings. I mean, there’s dedication of funds for certain projects. There also is ... I mean, I guess we could lay off employees, but that would be a net loss, in my opinion, similar to losing a hundred jobs from Arthrex.
From the people that I talk to, they just want to be able to vote on it. And I thought that was a prudent way for the board to make the right decision — is to let the voters vote. Not that board is saying individually or collectively we shouldn’t do this. It’s letting the citizens decide — do a general obligation bond. That way, instead of this tax on your electric bill — which you can’t take off your income taxes, but property taxes you can take off your income taxes — and let the proponents of Jackson Laboratory sell this instead of the Board of Commissioners individually and collectively.
Lytle: What difference will it make when Georgia Hiller officially becomes a commissioner from District 2? She also was a critic of the Jackson Laboratory financing proposal as she campaigned. And that would make two like-minded commissioners on the board. But unless someone changes their mind on the other side, we’ll still have three on the other side.
So will Hiller’s arrival on the board make a difference?
Henning: I think your statement is absolutely spot on.
Lytle:: Oh. I thought you were going to say wrong, and I was going to say "tell me what else is new.’’
Henning: No, from what I understand, she’s against the funding of Jackson or any other type of public funding, local funding, for businesses.
Lytle: Without a vote.
Henning: No, I’m not sure about that part. But I believe what we can do for business in Collier County, whether it be new businesses or expanding businesses, is to cut regulations and cut taxes. That is the prudent way to do it.
There are economic zones that the board created — the foundation for somebody to come in and create an economic zone to where their property taxes stay within there to pay for infrastructure is a sound way to collect less money for that expanding or new business. And under certain parameters, it had to be high-wage jobs.
And we also need to do something about our regulations. Some of them duplicate. There’s a duplication of state, federal, so on and so forth. And what we need to do is try to get that on a fast track mode. Faster than what it is.
Leo Ochs, our new county manager, has done a tremendous job in Community Development. I know there’s a lot of other work that needs to be done. But he’s brought the right people in that department to get everybody together to make things happen.
Lytle:: One of the arguments that the proponents of Jackson Laboratory made, and still make, is that it is not a stand-alone project, that it will attract other things like it.
Since then, we have actually seen at least movement in that direction from University of South Florida, from some other private sector businesses, Edison State College, maybe even a charter school.
Does any of that impress you?
Henning:: It just sounds like more taxes to me.
The charter school Edison proposed: they’re going to the School Board to get the funds to build and run that school.
The university stated they’re going to ask the state for $28 million to partnership for Jackson Laboratory.
If you look at the model of what happened in West Palm Beach, Scripps Institute, their biomedical hub never happened. That was a new one.
Now, Economic Development Council (EDC) and their proponents would like to point to the model in Orlando. It’s now comparing apples to apples, because a lot of those companies were already there before Scripps came to their Orlando institute — biomedical institution.
In West Palm Beach what happened is, the companies that did not get on the government payroll — local government — they moved to St. Lucie County. All right? St. Lucie County made a deal with them to locate there.
So, it just didn’t happen. And in fact the board, recently this past year, this coming fiscal year, they’re having to raise taxes to pay off some of the bonding that they borrowed to create this medical hub.
So, you know, unless there’s guarantees, in my perspective, all it is is a hope, a dream, a wish. And we’re dealing with somebody else’s money. We’re dealing with the taxpayers’ money. Those proponents, if they really believe in that, they should not be asking for government money. They should be putting their own money up for it.
Because I can’t invest in something on dreams and hopes and wishes.
Lytle: OK. Anything else you want to say? This is a great chance for you to get your view out. I think you’ve done that. Anything else before we move on to the next subject?
Henning: It’s your show, Jeff.
Lytle:: OK. Let’s talk about the late county manager, Jim Mudd, who died in the past week.
What, in your opinion, will be his legacy?
Henning:: Great soldier.
Lytle: In many ways.
Henning:: In many ways, yes. And this last battle that he had, he wasn’t going to give up the fight.
Jim is going to be remembered for making up the deficit of infrastructure in Collier County. We all enjoy from that right now. Whether it be the roads, water and sewer, some of the public services that we have which we enjoy is because of Jim Mudd’s leadership.
And the great thing is — one of the great things — he allowed Leo Ochs to monitor, to manage part of the county. So Leo has a lot of knowledge about a lot of aspects in the county.
The other half that Jim took care, that’s the part that Leo gets to learn.
Lytle: So his legacy with leadership and making sure the line of succession is ready to step in and carry on the mission.