It’s one thing not to have the support of a particular county commissioner.
It’s quite another not to have the support of the particular commissioner who represents your district.
That’s the thinking behind the reluctance of Arthrex Inc. to embrace Tuesday’s 4-1 county commission vote to award it more than $2 million in incentives to expand in Collier County.
Business leaders and Arthrex officials on Tuesday implored county commissioners for a unanimous vote in favor of the incentive package but Georgia Hiller, who represents the North Naples district where Arthrex is headquartered, voted against the measure, citing a litany of reasons.
Four votes were enough to award the incentives but Scott Price, general counsel and vice president for Arthrex, said the company will weigh its options, including moving its planned expansion into Lee County, in light of Hiller’s vote.
The point of pleading for a unanimous vote wasn’t to stomp out any dissent, Price said. Arthrex would have been happy with a 4-1 vote had the opposition come from someone else in the board. But since it was widely known that Hiller was the commissioner most likely to deny Arthrex the incentives, the plea took the form of a request for a unanimous vote.
Not having the support of the North Naples representative is a problem for Arthrex leadership, Price said. “Because Arthrex is sacrificing millions of dollars in savings that would occur in other locations for our expansion, the possibility that we would face years of Ms. Hiller opposing us and attacking our company and our ownership’s integrity and motives is frankly a continuing struggle for us.
“We strongly believe her objections have been primarily politically motivated. We believe this because she has not once asked us about any of the ‘facts’ she alleged against our company, all of which can be easily refuted or explained.”
The portrait of Hiller Tuesday was one of a person working very hard to find reasons not to support Arthrex.
For instance, Hiller stated that Arthrex doesn’t own the land on which the buildings it plans to add will be situated.
Property ownership is important because the county’s payments to Arthrex would be secured by liens on the property. If the company doesn’t produce the jobs it promises, the county can reclaim the money, using the property liens if necessary.
But Price countered that land at Ave Maria in eastern Collier County is under contract and that on Thursday, Arthrex closed on a second property in the Creekside development in Hiller’s district. Hiller apparently was unaware of the closing when she made her remarks, he said.
In either case, it wouldn’t make sense for the county to require a company to own the property before awarding an incentive to attract business. A company relying on the incentive would be reluctant to buy land before knowing if the incentive is going to be granted, Price pointed out.
Hiller and Arthrex founder Reinhold Schmieding found common cause in opposing Collier County’s $130 million courtship of Jackson Laboratory last year. Hiller on Tuesday read quotes from Schmieding in which he opposed government handouts to businesses. But in each case, Schmieding was specific in opposing “single enterprise,” or “individual business” incentives. The program Arthrex is applying for now is open to any company that meets the criteria and is not tailored to a single enterprise, as the Jackson Lab plan was.
Hiller niggled over the timing of the Arthrex expansion plans. She said the company announced its plan to expand in Collier before applying for incentive money to do so. That should disqualify it, because the incentives should be used to attract business that are considering Collier, not those already committed, she argued.
But the press release she cited as proof of the Arthrex decision to expand here says the company, “is pleased to announce it will seek to expand its corporate facilities and employment in Collier County.” Seek, the key word, indicates something less than a done deal.
Hiller said Arthrex seriously erred in writing “none” in a section of its application asking about pending litigation. The company is involved in lawsuits over patents and recently was on the losing end of a $85 million jury award in Oregon.
Price said that was an honest mistake made by the person filling out the application. Much of the current information was identical to information on an application made three years ago when Arthrex submitted then withdrew an application for financial incentives from the county.
The “none” answer should have been changed in the current application, Price acknowledged.
Still, the error isn’t grounds for automatic rejection of the application. Rather the application says failure to accurately answer the question “may” result in disqualification.
Hiller argued that the county is short of cash, saying “We are in a deficit position. We absolutely don’t have the money.” But her assertion that the county, “can’t balance its own budget,” proved too much for Commission Chairman Fred Coyle, who pointed out that the county always passes a balanced budget. “I can’t contain myself sometimes,” Coyle said after Hiller finished her laundry list of supposed shortcomings in the Arthrex application. “The county has to balance is own budget. We can’t print money. This county has no deficit.”
Before any money changes hands, a more specific agreement between Arthrex and the county will have to be drafted. Price said the company will use that time to evaluate its options and decide whether to proceed in Collier or look elsewhere to expand.
“We are, however, very mindful and appreciative of the overwhelming support we received yesterday and for the last month. This is not lost on us as we finalize our plans and will weigh heavily in the decision process,” Price said.
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten