VIDEO: Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta doubts Jackson Lab referendum

Coletta doubts Jax Lab referendum

Says staff seeking no-new-taxes plan

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, a Jackson Laboratory backer, takes a "show me’’ attitude on why voters should decide on tax subsidies and says he is not even sure what the question would be.

He is this week’s guest on "One on One with Jeff Lytle.’’

He says he is surprised by the high level of public opposition -- and support -- and says the arrival of lab foe Georgia Hiller on the commission may not affect the tax issue at all.

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 channel 9.

Lytle is editorial page/Perspective editor of the Daily News.

****

Lytle: Give us an update on Jackson Laboratory.

Specifically, the commission is going to be asked again to put the local investment, the tax support, to some sort of a public referendum, perhaps by mail. What will your reaction be?

Coletta: Janet Vasey is a lady that I greatly respect and consider a close friend and I’ll be listening very attentively to what she has to say.

As far as going to a special ballot at this point in time, without hearing Janet first, like I need to do, I would be kind of inclined to say that would be a waste of money, because we’re still putting together the picture as far as Jackson goes.

We don’t know what the depth of the project is going to be; we don’t know the length of our commitment. So it would be very difficult to put an item on the ballot that is open-ended and without particulars. And people come back and ask questions and you have to tell them the truth. You don’t know. We’re still working through all the particulars.

Lytle:: But is it that you don’t know now, Jim?

Coletta: What we don’t know is what our commitment financially is going to be over a long period of time ... how long that period of time is going to be.

What’s going to be the state’s commitment coming up? We know that there’s supposedly an $80-million commitment.

Lytle: For starters.

Coletta: Supposedly. However, that’s being redefined as we talk. The people at the state are going and looking at it and saying that they’re trying to consider how it’s going to work within the framework of the budget — almost like second thought taking place.

There’s a lot involved still in the air. We’re still moving forward. I hope it happens. I hope that all the visions that have been out there come true.

But at this point in time, there’s still a certain amount of uncertainty we have to get through.

Lytle: How do you respond to the concept of what Vasey will be asking for?

If she were here right now, in plain language, she would say: I think the people should have a chance to vote before the county commits tax dollars to this. And you would say to her ... ?

Coletta: If I were addressing Janet right to her face, and I welcome that opportunity to do it, I would tell Janet: Janet, you know, we do this all the time.

First we’ve got to be able to put together the parameters of what we’re going to be dealing with. Be able to find out what our commitment is going to be in dollars and cents. They may be structured in such a way that we don’t have to raise taxes down the road.

There’s a very good possibility. We have people in our county government looking at it.

If we don’t have these answers, how can we go to the public and say, we’d like you to vote on a concept that we don’t even have a full picture of at this point in time?

Lytle:: Janet Vasey, for our viewers who aren’t lucky enough to know her, is a veteran community activist. She has special financial skills. She sits on the county Productivity Committee. She is credible. When she talks about issues, especially fiscal matters, people tend to listen.

Coletta: Very much so.

Lytle: Did I sum it up well?

Coletta: The county commission listens to Janet all the time when it comes to our budget.

Lytle: OK, just trying to sketch that out for our viewers who are saying, "Who is Janet?"

Also on Jackson Laboratory, we see Fred Coyle, one of your colleagues on the commission, winning re-election by a modest to small margin.

What did that tell you?

Coletta: Well, it told me that Fred Coyle is going to be commissioner for the next four years.

Lytle: Very good. What else did it tell you?

Coletta: Well, it told me that there’s enough people to support him and probably his thoughts as they are in place at this point in time, that he feels confident to carry forward.

Lytle: Did his margin of victory surprise you in any way? Did you think it would be that close?

Coletta: To be honest with you, no. I expected Fred to win that election by a larger margin than he did win. So obviously, there was some dissension on the part of some of the voters within his district.

Lytle:: Based on Jackson Laboratory, I would assume.

Coletta: Possibly that, and other issues. There’s been a general mood of the public, you know, to replace all incumbents. That may have been a spill-over from that too.

You could always analyze this after the fact and try to come up with different reasons.

Lytle: Yes, but you’re good at it. You’ve been there; done that.

Coletta: I have, and I lost first election by 36 votes too. So I’m very much aware of what vote currents are.

Lytle: Let me ask you about the District 2 race and Georgia Hiller. She will be the next commissioner from District 2.

Coletta: Undoubtedly. There’s absolutely no way a write-in candidate has a chance.

Lytle: So let’s just speak plainly.

What difference will her arrival on the commission mean, and she campaigned against Jackson Laboratory. Is that a game-changer in any way?

Coletta: We don’t know. Until Georgia sits down there in November for her first meeting, and we start the discussion going on different subjects, we really don’t know where she’s going to be.

Lytle: But will it matter where she is?

Coletta: Oh yes, very much so.

Lytle: Because if you do the math, unless there’s a change, you would still have three commissioners in favor of Jackson Plan A, and two against it: Hiller and Tom Henning.

So is it moot? Or has something changed?

Coletta: I don’t know. At that point in time when we sit down and we start to discuss the subject, then we’ll be able to analyze where Hiller really stands on this issue. There may be other things she has found out since then. There may be other directions.

You know, it’s hard to pin down something based upon what happened during an election cycle; how it’s going to carry over in the next four years. Everything changes as things go forward. Any number of things could happen.

Lytle: What could change? It seems as if Hiller is crystal clear.

Coletta: Yes, and I have great respect for her too. And she’s going to make a wonderful commissioner.

Lytle:What could change?

Coletta: The thing is, we don’t know what’s going to happen until we actually sit down and start the discussions.

I don’t know ... I don’t want to say that she’s going to turn on the voters who supported her in some different issues. But as time goes forward, everybody modifies their thinking to be able to fit into what is best for the public that’s out there.

Who knows. When the facts start to come up, new facts come up, other issues come forward. Anything can happen. We’re just going to have wait and see, Jeff.

Lytle: OK. What difference will it make on policy and the commission’s relationship with the Clerk of Courts in view of the fact that Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock is a public and prominent supporter of Hiller?

Coletta: And he has every right as a private citizen to support whomever he wants to.

Lytle:Absolutely. It’s the American way.

Coletta: Right, you better believe it.

As far as the Clerk of Courts goes, the issue is almost a moot one. It’s before the Supreme Court for a final determination and hopefully that will bring it to an end. If it doesn’t, I plan to go forward with the step.

What I’d like to see done, if I can get the support of two other commissioners, and that is to work with the Clerk’s association and the Florida Association of Counties to get this resolved through the legislative body.

Lytle: OK. So what you’re saying is, once it gets to the Supreme Court, the question is whether he has independent auditing powers, as he sees fit, not as the commissioners see fit. Big difference.

Coletta: Right.

Lytle: But that’s where it will end.

Coletta: Well, it would end if this court found in favor of Dwight Brock. If they find in favor of the county, you still have the problem of the Florida statutes and the way they’re worded. That has to be resolved. It’s never going to end until you get the Florida statutes set up in such a way that you remove the ambiguity that’s in there now at this point in time so they read clearly.

And that’s what I plan to do with the Clerk’s Association and the Court Association of Counties.

Lytle: I need to get back to Jackson Laboratory for just a second. There’s no escaping Jackson Laboratory.

Has the degree of public push-back on this surprised you at all?

Coletta: Public push-back? Also the amount of public support. There’s been a tremendous amount of that.

If it were just one end of the spectrum pushing one way, then you would go with the flow. I mean, it’s just inevitable. You’re going to try to meet the public’s demand.

This has not been an easy picture. There have been people very vocal on both ends of the spectrum.

There’s a tremendous amount of support for Jackson Laboratory, and don’t let anybody misinterpret that. It’s very easy to hear the people who are opposed to a subject matter rather than those who are supportive of it.

I tell you right now: I hear from both ends of the spectrum, and I can tell you that they just about cancel one another out at this point in time.

Lytle:: If this were not an election year, and if it were not for the so-called tea party movement, would this level of Jackson push-back be happening?

Coletta: I think that the tea party had some play into it, but I’ve seen them coming in later than early. And so I don’t really know what the tea party’s outcome to the whole thing really has to offer at this point in time.

The movement that started that was in opposition was well before the tea party seemed to take a serious interest in it.

Lytle:: What are people on the street telling you? They see you at the supermarket, and your district is just fascinating in its diversity from Immokalee to Golden Gate Estates to Everglades City, and everything in between.

Coletta: You’re right. My district is very diversified. It’s also the one that has taken the biggest hit from the recession. Home values down as much as 60 percent in some areas.

So most of them are coming to me and they see this as a tremendous opportunity to be able to restore something in the way of a balance as far as the value of real estate goes and job. And they’ve been very supportive.

I haven’t had too many people get in my face as far as the negative end of the whole thing goes.

But you can’t attribute that to any particular thing. Sometimes people just don’t want to approach you if they’re negative. I don’t know. But I’ve had many more positive people come forward than I’ve had negative people.

Lytle: But you still had a lot of people impacted, as you said, and they might not have any money to help ante up for this.

Coletta: And that’s something we’re being very conscious of. That’s why the first year of the $28 million we’re going to come up is going to be within the county itself, if we go forward. It’ll be done through loans from different departments to be able to move everything forward.

Lytle:: No additional spending, is what you mean.

Coletta: No additional spending. And everything is going to be done to try and keep it so that this won’t have a negative impact upon the final bottom line of what the county is going to be spending.

Commissioner Coyle has been doing an admirable job as far as trying to put the pieces together in a way that will be the least intrusive on anyone.

It still hasn’t come before the commission with a final decision and how it’s going to go; and people always like to pick out the worst of it. "Oh my God, they’re going tax our utility bills."

Lytle: But that idea was out there.

Coletta: Of course it was. It was brought up the first time. Burt Saunders put it out there to the public, because there was only so many choices that could be made. And that was one of them. So immediately people seized on that; their utility bills are going to up 5 to 8 percent.

And of course, that didn’t happen. And it might never happen.

If we get to the point where we make this thing work, and I sure hope we do, we’re going to try to do it in such a way that it’s going to be an extremely minimal impact upon the public itself.

Lytle: We’ll stay tuned.

Coletta: Stay tuned.

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