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Florida County Approves $28M One-Year Loan for Jackson Lab for Personalized Medicine Campus

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Bypassing the federal stalemate that has blocked the use of $130 million in state funding approved this past spring, officials in Florida's Collier County have approved using $28 million in existing county funds as a one-year loan to The Jackson Laboratory toward the first-year startup costs of its planned personalized medicine campus near Naples.

The Board of County Commissioners opted for the one-year loan after it postponed until September a vote on matching the state funding with $130 million in county funds. The state and county funds were components of an economic incentive package for Jackson Lab that included a commitment by the laboratory to raise $120 million for the project through a philanthropic campaign.

Headquartered in Bar Harbor, Me., Jackson Lab plans next year to open a translational genetics research institute set to employ 244 people by 2020, within a temporary facility that will give way two years later to a permanent campus within 50 acres to be donated by developer Barron Collier Cos.

The county commissioners approved the loan 4-1 on Tuesday afternoon, with Tom Henning voting against it. A majority of commissioners also rejected requests by Henning and numerous opponents of the proposed $130 million county award for Jackson Lab to let county voters decide the issue through a referendum.

"[Based on] the correspondence that I have received from citizens, nobody is really against Jackson Lab. The thing is, do you use local public funds to fund a private enterprise or not-for-profit, which we haven't done in the past?" Henning said. "It's too much of a risk for me to vote to tax the people without their approval."

Frank Halas, vice chairman of the commissioners' board, countered, "This is a once in a lifetime possibility for not only Collier County but for southwest Florida. Whatever it takes, we need to try to move forward."

Fred Coyle, chairman of the commissioners' board, noted Jackson Lab's plans announced last week for a research, training, and clinical partnership with the University of South Florida — what he said was "a very major substantial announcement that could change one's perception of the economic viability of this process."

"There are likely to be others over the coming weeks or months, because that's how a credible plan is created, and a justifiable economic impact is determined," Coyle said. "We need to maintain the momentum that has resulted in the partnership formation thus far. And we cannot do that if we say, 'No, we're not going to make the decision. We don't think this is worth pursuing.' We've got to pursue it from today forward until we get something that works."

The actions and comment from commissioners came during a 10-1/2 hour meeting streamed over the Internet and highlighted by a public hearing on the Jackson Lab plan in which dozens of the 109 people who signed up to speak addressed the commissioners.

How the county would raise its $130 million remains unclear.

Henning proposed meeting before the Aug. 24 deadline for placing ballot questions to consider using sales taxes and issuing bonds, since both are subject to voter referendum. Henning's motion died when no other commissioner would second it. And meeting again this morning, the commissioners decided unanimously against raising county property taxes.

Property tax hikes in full or part accounted for three of seven options for raising the $130 million offered by an advisory committee yesterday. The Collier County Government Productivity Committee also suggested imposing a tax or "franchise fee" on utility bills, as well as raising sales taxes and issuing bonds.

Commissioners favoring the loan said it demonstrated Collier County support for the Jackson Lab project despite the stalemate that has blocked the use of state funding. In May, Crist and state lawmakers approved the state's piece of a three-year, $130 million funding package for Jackson Lab. The laboratory was allowed to receive its first $50 million portion during the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

But the money was approved under the assumption that Congress would approve $24 billion in additional Medicaid funding, including about $1 billion for Florida. The Medicaid money was removed from a bill that passed the US House of Representatives, and the US Senate has not restored the funding, despite support voiced for that idea by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

"The state funding hasn't even been solidified, so how can we make a decision on spending money if the state funds are not available? That would be sort of foolish, wouldn't it?" Coyle said.