By Mitch Traphagen
RUSKIN — Just over a month ago, Florida’s welcome for the world’s largest online retailer appeared to have been pulled out, but things have since changed. Last week, Governor Rick Scott announced a deal with Amazon.com to bring 3,000 jobs to Florida, including 1,000 jobs that could potentially come to Ruskin, beginning as early as next year.
In May, it was said that a deal with Amazon could result in an indirect tax increase for Floridians. According to state law, any entity that operates in the state must charge sales tax to state residents. Since Amazon, and many other online retailers opened their virtual doors in the mid and late 1990s, Floridians and residents of other states have effectively enjoyed a six to seven percent discount, as non-Florida entities were not required to collect the sales tax.
But technically, the argument over sales taxes is specious. Although out of state retailers are not required to collect tax, Floridians are supposed to “self-report” and pay the sales taxes nonetheless. It seems, however, that few people actually do that and there is no enforcement from the state to do so.
But now, a month later, the welcome mat is back out with a flourish and both Governor Scott and Amazon have announced a deal that could mean a $300 million dollar investment in the state, along with thousands of jobs. And a one million square-foot distribution center could possibly be built near the Southshore Corporate Park in Ruskin, just off I-75 and State Road 674. According to both the Tampa Bay Times and the Tampa Tribune, up to 375 of the one thousand jobs expected to be created will be considered high-paying jobs, with annual salaries over $47,000. The catch is that Amazon will begin collecting sales tax on purchases the moment they begin operations.
“We thank Governor Scott for his commitment to creating jobs in Florida,” said Paul Misener, Amazon vice president of global public policy. “We propose to create more than 3,000 new jobs and over $300 million in investment in Florida, while we work toward enactment of the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, which will protect states’ rights to make their own revenue policy choices.”
“I hope it’s likely that they will come to Hillsborough,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman. “It’s a great location, right next to Hillsborough Community College and a great high school, right in that same area.”
For local brick and mortar retailers, the sales tax issue has been a thorn in their side since the beginning of Internet commerce. The Florida Retail Federation has long pushed for laws requiring the collection of sales tax on Internet purchases, to help the playing field for local businesses. For years, Internet retailers argued that collecting and submitting sales taxes in a myriad of states and local tax districts would be far too burdensome, if not impossible. But just as technology has made it possible to buy nearly anything through a computer, it has also made tax collection and the payment of collected tax easier. Legislation is currently working through Congress, the previously mentioned Marketplace Fairness Act, that will likely end in some form of sales tax collection on most Internet purchases.
The result is that if Amazon comes to Florida and begins to collect sales tax on purchases as early as next year, consumers are not likely to lose something that will already, or will soon be, lost anyway.
For some retailers, despite a more level playing field with the collection of sales taxes, they could also see increased competition as Amazon has shown a desire to move into same day delivery of merchandise, including everything from books and clothing to groceries. Having large, local facilities in major metropolitan areas such as Tampa will help to make that possible.
When contacted for comment about possible future competition from Amazon, Brian West of Publix replied that the online retailer’s deal with the state is not a Publix specific issue.
As part of the deal, both the county and state will provide incentives in the form of property tax relief and, to a lesser degree, in the employment rolls for a set number of years.
“The incentive program is really geared towards luring people in,” Commissioner Murman said. “In Hillsborough, we do have an accountability system built in. We can be sure that our tax dollars are actually being used as promised.”
From the county’s standpoint, an Amazon facility in Hillsborough is an enormous win. Even with an unemployment rate in excess of seven percent, 1,000 jobs will have a large regional impact, not only for those seeking work but also through a broad ripple effect.
Everything from housing to infrastructure in education and transportation could see changes that would otherwise not be possible in the foreseeable future.
“We are developing worker training programs where we can build training programs for specific employers,” Commissioner Murman said. “If we have a gap in the skilled workers that they need, then we’ll get to work training workers to be able to fill those jobs.”
This week, the Board of County Commissioners will discuss granting employment incentives for the deal. Next month the board will decide on property tax breaks for the potential Ruskin location.
“We are in competition with a few other places but there seems to be more serious negotiations for Hillsborough,” Commissioner Murman said. “This is a great opportunity to get things started and really develop the community and the commercial marketplace. There are so many residents that live here [in South County] and they have to drive somewhere else to go to work. We are really trying to make our whole community economically attractive to employers. I’m just thrilled that this could be happening here.”