Florida tax loopholes help big business

Gary Joiner is Pasco County's property appraiser, but he's been called by many names we can't repeat. 

"There were quite a few F-bombs,” he said. 

Joiner described how he was cursed out for telling a landowner he couldn’t receive tax breaks for farming when there is no farming. That came after his staff monitored a large parcel of land in Wesley Chapel for the past two years. 

"Haven't been able to find any cattle on it," Joiner explained. "We've walked the property, dated it, pictures. Everything."

When Joiner tried to yank the tax break for farming, the owner appealed -- and won. 

"He agreed there's no farming," Joiner said. "They'll continue to receive 'ag' the rest of the time they own this property, and literally there's nothing I can do about it."

It goes back to how the Florida Legislature wrote the law granting tax breaks for commercial agriculture, but Joiner discovered the law is vague. "It's just a wide open big gray area," Joiner told FOX 13.  

Tax breaks for farmland where you don't see any farming isn't the only loophole in Florida law. Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano said the same holds true with state tax breaks for jobs. Fasano was a state senator when lawmakers passed a jobs bill known as the single sales factor apportionment in the middle of the night.  

"Unless you know exactly what's in the bill and when something is being done at 3 a.m. in the waning hours of session, this is what happens," Fasano said. 

FOX 13 Investigates discovered several big businesses in Florida qualified for large tax breaks for projects that had been planned well before the legislation was passed.   

For instance, Publix Supermarkets told us it qualified for building stores they planned to build anyway. Mosaic qualified based on a warehouse and golf resort it decided to build two years before the tax break passed.

FOX 13 Investigates checked with other tax break recipients. We couldn't find a single new job. It turns out the state doesn't even check. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott's jobs department said it does not keep any jobs data related to the single sales factor tax break legislation.  

"There's no accountability," Fasano said. "There's no oversight."

Dan Christensen of the Florida Bulldog, an independent non-profit journalism watchdog group, agrees with Fasano. 

"Lack of oversight seems to be the principal thing here," Christensen explained. 

Christensen discovered the state offered tax refunds to Kalashnikov USA while knowing the gun manufacturer had ties to a banned Russian weapons company. Christensen obtained the records he said had been kept secret. 

"The community was kept in the dark as to what exactly this deal was all about," Christensen said.  

The records show state officials knew Kalashnikov USA had a license to manufacture rifles under the brand of Concern Kalashnikov, which had been blacklisted by the federal government, but the state jobs department found no evidence it was violating sanctions. 

"They didn’t look very hard,” Christensen said. "The sanctions forbid any business dealings with Concern Kalashnikov, and obviously, having a license is a form of doing business with them.”

In the end, the state never paid out because the company in Pompano Beach did not deliver on its jobs promise.

Under Florida law, tax credit payouts are also used to help businesses establish a foothold in so-called high crime zones, with the goal of turning around impoverished neighborhoods and communities. FOX 13 Investigates discovered the state maps defining high crime and poverty zones were drawn in 1997, but have not been updated in decades. 

Slumping neighborhoods in Tampa can't get help, but millions have poured into Orlando theme parks and high-end resorts. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz) said the Senate would not pass a bill he sponsored to revise the tax credits for poverty and crime.

"We don't even go back in and re-evaluate," Corcoran said. "So when Universal does go in there and they build and change that community, and now is it still high crime? We haven't even measured and looked at crime statistics prior to their entry and after their entry to see if that credit should even be in existence anymore, and obviously it shouldn't."

In 2014 when FOX 13 Investigates analyzed the state-issued high crime map, we found the state approved tax credits to a Walmart in Tampa that wasn't even in an eligible zone. The state's official jobs office said that was a mistake, and cancelled the credit after we pointed it out.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state agency authorized to approve tax payouts -- otherwise known as "economic incentives" -- to companies doing business in Florida, said the agency does its "due diligence" before approving any incentives package.

Here’s the agency’s full statement in response to FOX 13’s questions:

The Urban High Crime Zone Tax Credit program was created by the Florida Legislature in 1997. This legislation allowed for up to 15 units of local government to receive the designation if they met the requirements. Thirteen communities applied.  The map, nor the requirements, have not been updated because the Florida Legislature has not passed any additional legislation since they originally established the program. 

Attached are the list of companies who have received the credit since 2000.  Companies who meet the requirements of the program passed by the Florida Legislature receive the credits. 

RWC Group, LLC was awarded a Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund in October 2015, but did not receive any incentive funding because the contract was terminated. Absolutely zero state tax dollars went to this company.  Attached is a copy of the letter provided to RWC Group, LLC terminating their contract with the agency due to their failure to submit documentation necessary to show compliance with the terms of the agreement. 

Prior to approving projects that apply for economic incentives for any company, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity completes due diligence. Our due diligence was conducted on the RWC Group, LLC which is an American company. The contract that all companies must sign specifically states that they must comply with all federal and state laws. Additionally, the City of Pompano Beach and Broward County adopted resolutions and committed financial support for this project.

Jobs data for the Single Sales Factor Apportionment program is not required because a company's ability to participate [in the] program is based on their expenditures.  DEO does track the expenditures of the companies who participate.