Hillsborough County approves $225,000 handout for Amazon.com

06/19/13 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County Commissioners unanimously approved Amazon.com as a Qualified Target Industry Business Wednesday, making it eligible for up to $225,000 in local financial support. Another nearly $6 million in tax breaks will be taken up at a meeting in July. Two Hillsborough County residents took issue, including Seffner resident Elizabeth Belcher who called the incentive corporate welfare.

“Several years ago, I was involved in community plans. One issue that was discussed was providing property tax credits to business. Your professional planners shot down that idea. The county professional planners insisted that no business makes decisions based on tax credits. So, why is the BOCC giving tax money to corporations when their own planners say it makes no difference?”

The 1 million square foot warehouse will serve as a distribution center for the online retail giant and is expected to bring as many as 1,000 jobs to the area. The county claims 375 of those will be high-wage, quality jobs. But Belcher’s husband, Herbert, questions that claim.

“What is the definition of newer, higher wage, quality jobs? An article in the Tampa Bay Times spoke about an Amazon employee making $12.50 per hour. That is not high wages or a quality job. Commissioner Higginbotham can attest to the fact that he was informed by the Bloomingdale Big Box Store meeting that persons working at retail jobs at this wage level need social services such as food stamps, subsidized housing, etc.”

The warehouse could represent a $200 million investment in Hillsborough County and commissioners are looking at it as a win for predominantly rural Ruskin. If commissioners approve an exemption to its ad valorem taxation, Amazon will save nearly $1 million a year for six years by paying only half of the usual property tax on the warehouse which would be as big as a shopping mall. Commissioner Victor Crist said that’s a small price to pay, calling attention to a sales tax loophole usually exploited by consumers when shopping online.

“They now are going to have to charge sales tax on their products and collect it and pay it to the state of Florida and a percentage to the county of which they reside in. So, that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That is significant impact to the state of Florida for our schools, for our transportation routes, for our un-funded or under-funded services that the community and our constituents demand that we provide.”

The property tax exemption will be taken up at the commission’s July 17 meeting. If approved it would take effect in 2016 when Amazon plans to open the warehouse. Last week, Governor Rick Scott announced the possible deal with Amazon that would create 3,000 jobs in the state – a third of them in Hillsborough. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he is usually reluctant to use taxpayer dollars to fund wealthy corporations, but this deal is a win for the county and its residents. He also called Amazon a good corporate sponsor in communities where they do business.

“Their corporate giving program of putting Kindles in schools across the country and their investment in education I found very attractive.”

There was one speaker during public comment to favor giving tax breaks to Amazon. Sam Sudman is with the Sun City Center Community Association near where the proposed Amazon warehouse would be built.

“The proposed Amazon Fulfillment Center could generate needed jobs and tax revenue that could contribute to improved roads, an interstate interchange to handle the increased traffic and modernization of the storm water conveyance system that underlies the 50-year-old communities.”

There were three other Hillsborough County residents who addressed commissioners on a similar issue. A site on Bloomindale Avenue near Lithia Pinecrest was rezoned to Traditional Neighborhood Development Greenfield which allows for some neighborhood-friendly commercial development. But In 2011, the county commission amended the zoning classification. Dee Bristol is with a group of residents opposing the development of a big box retail store they guess could be a Wal-Mart. The group claims that kind of development would slow emergency responders, lower property values and make roads unsafe for pedestrians. Bristol argues the latest rezoning was done behind residents’ backs.

“The mixed use, according to the planning commission themselves, is more of a standard commercial development with some residential on it. So, this is going to intensify the amount of commercial on this site from 50 to 80% and allow them to have very large apartment complexes whereas under the previous zoning, they would have had to have had smaller streets; the layout would have to be completely different than it is now.”

The nearly quarter million local financial support for Amazon approved today is contingent on the commission adopting a budget. The money would be spread out over 4 years beginning in 2016.

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