Suwannee Democrat


July 17, 2014

Project Bark eyes Hamilton County

Jasper — A company under the code name of Project Bark has expressed interest in Hamilton County. The matter was briefly discussed at the July 1 meeting of the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners and then abruptly stalled and ended due to a client confidentiality agreement between Project Bark and the Hamilton County Economic Development Authority.

A special called meeting of the county commissioners about Project Bark was held on May 6, at 8 a.m. in the board meeting room prior to a regular county commission meeting that began at 9 a.m. that same day, according to Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Godwin. The Jasper News was not aware of the meeting and was not in attendance.

Godwin stated via e-mail on July 7, “We post the special called meetings on our bulletin boards, and send a copy to each library and municipality to be posted as well. The law states that a special called meeting has to be posted 24 hours prior to the meeting time.”

Godwin also said he would ensure the Jasper News would be notified of any future special called meetings via e-mail.

Officials from the towns of White Springs and Jasper said via phone calls on Monday, July 7, that they had no recollection of being advised of the meeting, however, Jennings Town Hall said Town Manager George Glover was notified by telephone.

The libraries in Jasper and Jennings said they remember posting a notice, but could not recall any details of it. The White Springs Library said they had no recollection of receiving the notice.

May 6 meeting minutes

According to the minutes of the May 6 meeting, commissioners Josh Smith, Robert Brown, Randy Ogburn, Beth Burnam and Buster Oxendine, along with County Attorney John McCormick, County Coordinator Louie Goodin and Attorney Cliff Adams were present at the meeting.

Diane Scholz with the Institute of Government addressed the board regarding the recent meetings with the individuals who have visited the county checking sites for the possible location of Project Bark. The individuals present introduced themselves and thanked the board for the hospitality they received.

County Coordinator Louie Goodin advised the board that the group has visited several available sites and have been impressed with the county and the possible incentives that would be available. The group stated they are definitely interested in learning more about the county. The group and the board discussed the pros and cons of the project, as well as the number of direct and indirect jobs associated with the project. After a lengthy discussion, the group extended an invitation for the board and/or staff to visit sites that are in operation, and again thanked the board for their hospitality.

There being no further business before the board, the chairman adjourned the meeting at 8:37 a.m.

July 1 commission meeting

Project Bark was a late addition to the agenda and did not make the printed advertisement that ran in the June 26 Jasper News. County Coordinator Louie Goodin began by saying the company (Project Bark) had made inquiries about tax abatements for their project.

“I’ve supplied you with information on the particulars of what they’re asking for and this mock grant request that was suggested by Attorney John McCormick,” said Goodin.

McCormick asked Goodin if there was a confidentiality agreement between him and the company and Goodin said, “Not with me, at this point in time. I haven’t entered into any, but the Hamilton County Economic Development Authority has, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve had limited amounts of information said to me.”

Susan Ramsey from the development authority was in the audience and told the board that yes, there was a confidentiality agreement between the development authority and the company.

“They’ve just asked that their information be kept confidential,” she said. “It was assigned a code name of Project Bark.”

The reason for the code name, she said, is so that no one will know who they are or what they do in detail.

“It can be a generic manufacturing company to describe that,” said Ramsey. “With a confidentiality agreement, we are not allowed to disclose the company name.”

Commissioner Burnam asked if an eight o’clock meeting the board had with the company (on May 6) was a public meeting and Godwin said yes it was.

“So, as far as we were concerned it was a public meeting, right?” she asked. “If we had an eight o’clock public meeting with these men who sat and disclosed all of this to us, are we bound by any type of confidentiality?”

Local Attorney Cliff Adams told her, “You can’t have any confidentiality. You’ve got to go out into the sunshine.”

“So, what we’re dealing with on our end is totally different from the development authority, right?” Burnam asked Adams.

“Yes,” Adams said. “Everything you do on this board is subject to the Sunshine Law.”

Commissioner Oxendine said, “I agree with Burnam. They scheduled a meeting here with us and they sat here and presented their whole plan, their specifics, how much wood know, what they needed, all the products, even the site locations. I mean, once they did this, it’s public information and everybody that you see is aware of it.”

Burnam said, “I do respect Ms. Ramsey’s position because she does have to follow her guidelines...”

Ramsey interrupted, stating, “I’m just sharing with you under my guidelines what has been shared with me. You held a public meeting here and that meeting was for you and the company, and what you discussed. I am in no way telling you not to discuss what was discussed with you, or have any discussion you want. That just pertains to me with the development authority.”

“They sent a proposal to us, a request, I guess you would say, as to what they want,” said Oxendine. “The only way I’m going to arrive to a response is to discuss it, and the only place I can discuss it is right here. They sent a request in and if they’re waiting on a response, we have to discuss it.”

Commissioner Josh Smith interrupted and said before anything more was discussed, he wanted to know if the board was violating any statutes.

Adams said there is a statutory procedure that must be followed for tax abatements.

“It’s something that’s authorized by referendum, there’s limitations on it, there’s public hearings that are called for...this is a decision that affects a lot of people,” Adams said. “What I get they are asking for is some kind of advisory opinion from the board about what you’re going to do in the future after all these hearings are held and you’ve got all this information in hand. I advise that you don’t do that...that you don’t pre-judge this thing. Certainly, I think you can tell them that they’re going to get a fair hearing and you’re all favorably disposed toward it.”

“So, basically, there’s nothing that we can do at this point in time,” Oxendine said to Adams.

“There’s nothing I would recommend you do at this point in time,” Adams replied.

Attorney McCormick briefly explained to the board all the Florida statutes that needed to be followed with regard to offering tax abatements to a potential new business that include how many new jobs a company would create in the county.

Commissioner Randy Ogburn said he thought the board should at least respond to the company to let them know they were still interested in bringing them into the county and that they would get a fair hearing.

Goodin said he has received some documents from the company, although no financials yet. Ramsey said she has not received the information she has asked for yet, either. Ramsey and the board agreed to share any incoming information from the company with each other.

Smith said his first concern is whether or not the company had the financial means to produce what they said they could.

“What’s their intent and can they afford to do what they want to do?” Smith added.

Goodin said, “I do know that there is a financial statement being translated right now. I haven’t seen it and I haven’t requested it because I don’t really know that my office needs it unless y’all want to see it for proprietary reasons. It is forthcoming in the next few days.”

Smith asked Goodin to compose a letter to the company that the county was still interested and to keep it on a positive note. McCormick said he would be willing to assist Goodin in composing the letter.

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