Sins of Commission

It was no virgin birth.

The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission was spawned during an orgy of corporate welfare the likes of which would put Ron Jeremy to shame. The creation of the agency, by then-Mayor John Delaney, was designed to apply both control and focus to the practice of handing out cash to businesses, either to lure them to town or persuade them to stay.

The creation of the JEDC was not intended to stop the giveaways — god no. In fact, the agency was conveniently created right before one of the largest and most controversial incentives packages, a $21 million gift to a hotel (of all things), a deal that JEDC was instrumental in orchestrating.

But the creation of a one-stop incentives shop was supposed to at least create a pinch-point in the flow of taxpayer dollars — a place businesses could tap for handouts, certainly; but also a place where the city could extract accountability for dollars spent. If the JEDC brought the City Council an incentives package, it was expected that the deal spell out exactly what the city was to get in return — how many jobs, at what pay scale, with what economic benefit.

JEDC was great at crafting those contracts. It just wasn’t any good at enforcing them. As a City Council audit released Dec. 21 shows, the agency was astonishingly inept at even basic administrative functions — cashing checks, calculating incentive payments, or requiring tenants to sign leases within a decade of moving in. The audit looked at three simple metrics: whether the JEDC properly administered incentives deals, whether it monitored Cecil Field tenant operations (which are under JEDC’s purview), and whether it deposited revenues in an accurate and timely manner.

On all three counts, auditors delivered a resounding #fail. Though the audit barely scratched the surface of JEDC operations, examining just three years of its almost two decades of existence, it uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of errors, uncollected revenues and outright waste. (Among the highlights: Taxpayers reimbursed a Cecil Field maintenance contractor for “decorative brass eggs,” Walmart frappucinos and 39 weeks of a Florida Times-Union subscription.)

Not only did the JEDC fail to track money, it failed to track job creation — the only reason the city provided incentives in the first place. While the city gave money and tax breaks in exchange for the promise of new jobs, the JEDC did almost nothing to ensure that the companies delivered on their promises. JEDC didn’t ask for data, didn’t check that it was accurate, and didn’t punish companies that got sideways on their promises.

The JEDC’s failure was compounded by something else — arrogance? institutional paralysis? simple disregard? The audit doesn’t say. But the fact is that, when notified about the failings, JEDC officials didn’t bother to address auditors’ concerns, much less rebut them. According to Council Auditor Kirk Sherman, the JEDC initially didn’t respond to the draft audit, presented in July. When pressed, agency officials offered answers that Sherman calls frankly “misleading” — to the point that he refused to include them in the final audit.

That silence has persisted since the release of the document. Recently ousted JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton refused to discuss the audit. So did acting Executive Director Paul Crawford and former Mayor John Peyton. And since the very future of the JEDC is in question — Mayor Alvin Brown has proposed abolishing it and replacing it with a different agency that reports directly to him — it seems all but certain that nobody will ever have to answer for it.

There may be no official punishment for what occurred at JEDC, but the Brown Administration shouldn’t mistake it as a problem unique to past administrations. Luring business to town is the job of a salesman, not an auditor; and just as a prenup puts romance in deep freeze, so does asking the “incentives” dangler to play enforcer. Knowing this, the mayor must take specific, discrete and very public steps to force transparency and accountability from his economic development staff. Simply asking whatever agency replaces the JEDC to “report to” the mayor doesn’t cut it. Quarterly reports and annual audits are reasonable and customary in the business world, and those of us footing the bill for the city’s courtship rituals deserve at least that level of accountability. Jacksonville taxpayers don’t demand that economic development be chaste, or even sleaze-free. But it had better produce outcomes that don’t leave us feeling quite so dirty.