A FOX 13 investigation revealed Governor Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) approved tax credits for companies that do not appear to be in approved zones (based on the department's own maps). And on Wednesday afternoon, a Tampa city manager confirmed one of those companies was approved by mistake.
Under state law, companies are required to be in designated high-crime zones to receive tax credits under Florida's Urban Job Tax Credit Program. But when we reviewed maps provided by DEO, we found three companies the state approved for credits (within the past two years) that are not located within the boundaries, according to DEO maps. They include a car dealership in South Florida, a bank in Jacksonville and a Walmart store in Tampa.
Walmart could not explain why the maps we were shown do not show the store within the zone.
"We applied for the tax credit and were advised by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) that our store was located within the urban zone boundaries. Later we received a letter from the DEO (dated Jan. 24, 2014) certifying that we were eligible to receive the credit," said Walmart Spokesman William Wertz.
DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims responded to our questions about this on Tuesday.
"The maps provided are accurate and no exceptions are granted. It is the responsibility of the respective local government to verify that a business is located within the designated Urban Job Tax Credit Area. DEO relies on the area expertise of the local governments to ensure the businesses are within the local designated areas. Should a business's location in relation to a designated urban area become questionable, DEO will conduct the necessary due diligence to ensure the proper administration and protection of taxpayer dollars. Please note that we will look into these businesses' locations and follow up as needed."
On Wednesday, Bob McDonough, Tampa's Director of Economic Opportunity, told FOX 13 a city staffer looked at the wrong map, and the Walmart tax credit was ultimately approved by mistake.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the city of Jacksonville told us DEO provided us with an inaccurate map of Jacksonville's eligible zone. She provided a different map which shows the bank is within the eligible boundaries.
Again, DEO told us the map it provided was accurate. We asked DEO to address that. They responded with the following statement:
"It is important to note that DEO administers the Urban High-Crime Area Job Tax Credit program pursuant to Section 212.097, Florida Statutes. This legislation was designed to establish a maximum of 15 high-crime areas in the state where eligible businesses may receive tax credits for job creation under this program. There were 13 applicants that requested local areas be designated as Urban High-Crime Areas based on crime rate data supplied from local law enforcement agencies. As the legislation does not provide a minimum threshold for a local area's crime rate, all 13 applicants were approved and are now designated Urban High-Crime Areas. Furthermore, the statute does not provide guidance for a local area to amend the boundaries of the designated high-crime area. Again, the program is administered based on the statute, which does not provide a minimum crime rate threshold.
Regarding your other questions, DEO is in communication with Wal-Mart store #5760 in Tampa regarding their receipt of a tax credit under this program. DEO will take appropriate action to ensure all tax credits are properly accounted for per the provisions of the law and any unauthorized payments are recouped. DEO is also actively working with the City of Jacksonville and Miami-Dade County to verify the locations of the respective businesses in relation to the local designated urban high-crime areas."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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