Enthusiastic Palm Beach County commissioners, dazzled by the prospect of landing a branch of the prestigious Scripps Research Institute, agreed Tuesday to commit up to $200 million in public money to provide a home for the La Jolla, Calif.-based biotech giant.
The money, $40 million more than originally estimated to land the deal, would pay for a temporary site, land for a permanent location and construction of two buildings.
The commission’s commitment, approved 5-1 at a special Scripps-only meeting, raises to more than $500 million what state and local governments could pay to bring Scripps to Palm Beach County. Legislators will meet next week in a special session to consider $310 million in state subsidies.
“In one fell swoop we have been given this opportunity of having the goose that lays the golden egg,” Commissioner Mary McCarty said. “This is an opportunity we don’t want to blow. This is once in a lifetime. … We have to be very careful today to send the right message.”
McCarty said she wanted to ensure there was enough money for the county to fulfill its part of the deal.
But Commissioner Addie Greene, the only dissenter, was “not as excited about this as everyone else.”
“I am a little bit confused as to what I am supposed to tell my constituents,” Greene said. “No one needs employment more than my people in Palm Beach County, I mean people all over Palm Beach County.”
Greene’s district includes some of the county’s poorest residents as well as some of its richest. Though she said the price was too high for 540 Scripps jobs over seven years and 2,800 over 15 years, McCarty said the ultimate payoff would be much larger, perhaps 10,000 jobs, counting spinoffs.
Commissioners Burt Aaronson and Tony Masilotti also complained of having too little information.
Still, Aaronson predicted immense benefit. “This is probably one of the greatest things that could ever happen to Palm Beach County. I’m disappointed I have no information. I was not briefed. I was not afforded the same information as other commissioners have been. Having said that, it is still my feeling that this project must go forward.”
McCarty, the commission representative to the Business Development Board, said no one was intentionally excluded. “If anybody’s out of the loop it’s not that you’ve been out of the loop for long, and the loop has changed hourly.”
County Debt Manager John Long said repaying a borrowed $200 million would cost about $15 million a year for 20 years. The plan calls for revenue bonds, which are not guaranteed by property taxes. A property-tax guarantee would mean a lower interest rate, perhaps 4.7 percent instead of 5 percent for revenue bonds, Long said, but also requires voter approval.
Commissioners also voted to hire Ruden McClosky, a well-connected, Broward-based law firm, as the county’s bond counsel. County Administrator Bob Weisman said the firm was recommended because it had already started work on the project. Long said the firm’s fee would probably be $99,000.
About 35 people were in the audience, including several VIPs. Among them: Mike Jones, president of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, and state Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, who returned late Monday from a legislative delegation visit to Scripps headquarters.
Commissioners plan to visit Scripps in Southern California soon. Marcus and Masilotti said they hoped to go this week. McCarty said she probably would not go until next week. Aaronson said he would go soon.
Few from the audience spoke, and most who did represented a business or government that wanted to do business with or praise Scripps.
The only criticism came from Cynthia Plockelman of West Palm Beach: “I’m kind of appalled at the lack of the sunshine that’s been put over this.”
John Hallman, South Florida director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which advocates free-market principles, including low taxes and minimal government interference, said he is skeptical about providing such large subsidies for Scripps.
“This falls under the stance of corporate welfare,” said Hallman, of Boca Raton, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting. “This leads to other companies wanting money. Money to stay and money to come.”
Hallman said he doesn’t buy the argument that the economic activity spurred by the subsidies will mean lots of new tax revenue for the government. “I guess we’d better hope so, hadn’t we? That’s a big if.”
Anthony Man can be reached at email@example.com or 561-832-2905.
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