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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
NAPLES — North Naples resident Janet Vasey plans to make a pitch for a mail-in ballot referendum on the Jackson Laboratory project when the Collier County Commission convenes Sept. 14 after a summer break.
She submitted a request in late August to speak during the public petitions segment of the board meeting, where residents can raise any topic with a 10-minute time limit.
The board does not act on public petition requests when made but it can direct staff to put requests on a future board agenda for discussion and a vote.
Vasey, a longstanding member of the county’s advisory group, the Productivity Committee, is acting as a private citizen and said she is not bringing others to back up her request. Likewise, she does not plan to present a citizen’s signature petition in support of a referendum.
“Right now, it’s just going to be myself,” she said.
Vasey is asking the board to consider a mail-in referendum in December on the county potentially having to generate $130 million in taxpayer funding for the project, taking into account that the Supervisor of Elections office says it takes 90 days to prepare a mail-in referendum.
In late July during a public hearing on the Jackson project, the board rejected a motion by Commissioner Tom Henning to schedule a referendum in November on the project by using taxpayer funding.
At issue is efforts to entice the Maine-based Jackson Lab to build a genetics research center on 50 acres off Oil Well Road near Ave Maria. The land would be donated by the Barron Collier Co. The plan is for Jackson to serve as an anchor to attract other medical-related enterprises so a biomedical park develops and thousands of jobs are created over a projected 23-year build out period.
The proposal has been spearheaded by the Economic Development Council to diversify the economy and create higher paying jobs.
The Productivity committee was tapped by the county commission to evaluate Jackson’s business plan and an EDC consultants’ report about the biomedical park. The committee concluded in July that the project was not economically sound, based on how the project stood at the time with one potential partner in the biomedical park, such being the University of South Florida in Tampa. The committee also concluded the EDC consultants overstated the size of the proposed biomedical park.
Vasey’s petition takes into consideration that Congress approved another stimulus package to states in early August, which is the funding source that the Florida Legislature identified this past spring to earmark $50 million in first-year funding to Jackson.
The state’s budget document says the county has 120 days to have a plan for a local match, and the clock starts ticking when Jackson and the state have a contract for the state money.
As it stands now, Collier would need a plan to generate $130 million, based on a scenario of the $50 million in first-year funding from the state and the Legislature approving another $80 million in subsequent years.
Vasey sent her petition to the county with the idea that the state and Jackson may have a contract in place sometime this month. That would mean the county would have to act no later than December to comply with the 120-day requirement.
Recently, though, a glitch has developed over wording in the state’s budget document for the $50 million which may delay a contract being drafted and signed between Jackson and the state. The glitch involves a possible inconsistency between the stimulus approved last month by Congress and wording used in the state budget document about the anticipated second stimulus.
Vasey said her time line for a mail-in ballot referendum could be adjusted to address when and if the glitch gets solved and when the state and Jackson sign a contract.
The Supervisor of Elections Office has told her a mail-in ballot referendum would cost about $300,000.
“(That) is nothing compared to the cost we would have to pay,” she said, referring to the $130 million local match. “I hear people want to vote and I hear that everywhere I go.”
Commission Chairman Fred Coyle, who has taken the lead on the Jackson project with the EDC, said the board could decide Sept. 14 to have staff schedule a referendum discussion for a future board meeting.
He questions what a referendum question would ask, given that the project is still developing with other entities becoming interested in the biomedical park. He also says private money may become available to reduce the local match.
Coyle said he would not anticipate Jackson and the state having a contract until mid-October or later, and then county staff has to review it.