The vice chair of Enterprise Florida (EFI), the state’s public-private economic development agency, sounded like he was playing defense in a conference call with the group’s executive committee Wednesday.
“As you read some of the newspapers, they make it sound like we’re out of business,” said Alan Becker, co-founder of South Florida’s Becker & Poliakoff law firm. Though Gov. Rick Scott is the chair, Becker presides over meetings as vice chair.
He was responding to a report on EFI’s recent business development efforts, including more than 270 active projects “in the pipeline.”
“The fact is, business is good” Becker said. “We’re doing well. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The agency took it on the chin this past legislative session with the denial of a request from Scott to fund its proposed $250 million Florida Enterprise Fund to woo companies and their jobs to the Sunshine State.
Last week, it was revealed that agency CEO Bill Johnson, who lives in South Florida, had the agency pay “at least $170,000 in state money to expand its Miami office, rather than have Johnson move to EFI’s headquarters in Orlando,” according to Fox 13 News in Tampa.
That included, among other expenses, “$40,000 for new furniture, including $1,800 for a coffee table for Johnson’s office, (as well as) $7,000 for four flat-screen televisions and a refrigerator.” Johnson, whom Scott appointed in March 2015, last month announced he was stepping down.
He was granted a $50,000 bonus this summer, just half a year after joining the agency at a $265,000 yearly salary. Money for staff bonuses comes from the organization’s private-sector funds. Becker did not address the Fox News report.
He did note that Enterprise Florida got funding for operations, marketing and other initiatives in the 2016-17 state budget. That amount is $23.5 million, EFI spokesman Stephen Lawson later said.
Originally, the organization’s funding was supposed to come equally from public funds as from private, but this fiscal year, ending June 30, it got $23 million from the state and only $1.6 million from private sources.
“Yes, we do have some challenges,” Becker told the committee. “But we have so many other advantages to sell and so many other tools to use. We may suffer on some of the bigger, high-profile projects, but we’re doing a good job with what we’ve got.”
Later, Becker added, “People probably don’t realize how much we do to help small business, early-stage companies, and we want to make sure they continue to thrive … Let’s make this a legislative priority.”
He went on: “I don’t think you can say often enough or loud enough that, notwithstanding the lack of support for (business incentives funding), there is no basis to conclude a lack of legislative support for Enterprise Florida … All of the other good results tend to be overlooked, and I don’t think we should let people overlook them.”
The next full board meeting is May 10-11 at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club.