The Pensacola City Council could issue final approval on a multimillion-dollar tax incentive at its meeting tonight, but amid lingering questions about the incentive’s legality, Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones isn’t ready to put his name on it.
Council members voted last month to move forward with an EDATE, or Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption, for Daily Convo LLC, the Quint Studer-owned company managing a $50 million downtown redevelopment project. However, several council members questioned the project’s eligibility under Florida’s enterprise zone program, which legislators did not renew and which is set to sunset at the end of the month.
In a letter to city council members sent yesterday, Jones wrote that he had “personally reviewed the Daily Convo application,” noting that a copy of the application signed by a staffer in his office had been provided solely for the purpose of estimating lost tax revenue. “I feel compelled to reiterate that we are awaiting an Attorney General opinion on the viability of the Daily Convo application,” wrote Jones. “A final determination by me on this application will be dependent on the conclusion made by the Attorney General.”
EDATE incentives — which exempt a property owner from paying taxes on the value of improvements to a property — are typically used to help companies which are expanding and creating jobs. In the case of the Daily Convo project, the incentive could be worth between $2-3 million over ten years.
“My office has not made any final determination regarding whether Daily Convo qualifies,” wrote Jones.
Pensacola mayor Ashton Hayward met last week with attorneys from Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, City spokesman Vernon Stewart confirmed Wednesday. Bondi’s office told Hayward their goal was to issue an opinion before the end of the year, Stewart said.
Unclear whether vote can move forward tonight
Jones’ letter further complicates the issue, because state law appears to require that a property appraiser make a determination before the council can take action.
However, in a December 3 memorandum, Assistant City Attorney Rusty Wells wrote that, “I do believe the council could, if it so chooses, adopt the ordinance with the understanding that it may be repealed at a later time if it is subsequently deemed to be ineffective under Florida law.”
County Commission also voting on incentive
Escambia County commissioners are also set to consider an EDATE incentive for the project, with a public hearing scheduled for 5:34 p.m. tomorrow. Commissioners are being asked to waive a ten-day notice requirement and adopt an emergency ordinance granting either a 100% property tax exemption to the project, or a 38.46% exemption based on the project meeting 5 out of the county’s 13 EDATE criteria.
The county incentive could be worth as much as $3.8 million over ten years, bringing the potential full value of city and county property tax incentives for the project to $6 million or more.
Decision could impact project financing
Quint and Rishy Studer purchased the project site, formerly home to the Pensacola News Journal, in 2013. The much-anticipated project is expected to add more than 250 residential units in downtown Pensacola, along with retail space, offices, and a public/private parking garage.
In an interview last week with Andrew McKay of Newsradio 1620, Studer said that if the incentive isn’t awarded, it could slow down the project or affect its financing. “If the EDATE doesn’t go through, here’s the challenge,” said Studer. “Because we got preliminary approval, all our financing with the banks was based on getting the EDATE. When all of the sudden something changes, you end up slowing down a project considerably, because now you’ve got to go back to your lending.”
Jones’ letter to council members is below: