Business

Major changes proposed for Gov. Rick Scott’s cherished job recruiting agency

For nearly 40 minutes Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sat and listened to how the agency he most entrusted to uphold his self-proclaimed jobs legacy is “top heavy” with management, spends too much on office space, needs to rein in travel expenses and has a lack of internal controls that could make it ripe for fraud.

Those findings were part of a nearly two-month review of Enterprise Florida that Scott ordered after the Republican-led Florida Legislature refused earlier this year to give him $250 million for a job recruitment fund that he said was critical to growing jobs and diversifying the economy. After his failure with the Legislature, Scott, also a Republican, announced Enterprise Florida CEO Bill Johnson was leaving after just 16 months on the job.

Enterprise Florida made that official Wednesday with Johnson, who earned $265,000 a year plus a $50,000 bonus last year, receiving $132,500 in severance pay when he leaves in June.

Without the $250 million, Scott said Enterprise Florida had to change and called on David Wilkins, former head of the Department of Children & Families, to look at the agency’s operations and propose ways to improve it.

On Wednesday in Naples, Wilkins presented that report and was quick to praise Enterprise Florida for being one of the best public-private partnerships in the nation and “one of the best investments of state dollars.”

But given the reluctance of the Legislature to fund job recruitment, Wilkins said the agency needs to undergo change.

“You should never be afraid to tweak the model and improve on what we are doing,” he said.

Those changes, he said, could amount to $6 million in savings and demonstrate better transparency and accountability for taxpayers. Among them:

▪  Cut 27 positions in the agency, which Wilkins said is “top heavy” with management and would save $2.7 million in payroll costs.

▪  Move offices out of expensive real estate in Orlando and Tallahassee, while subleasing excess space in Miami, which combined could save at least $215,000 a year.

▪  Change travel policies that had Enterprise Florida workers getting more in reimbursements for mileage, hotels and meals than other government workers, which would save another $150,000 a year.

▪  Fix unspecified internal spending controls that Wilkins said haven’t been abused yet but could be if not addressed. He said Enterprise Florida needs an outside accounting firm to review its practices.

“I found no fraud in the accounting, but the lack of internal controls is too tempting that fraud could exist,” Wilkins said.

Scott called on the Enterprise Florida board to move quickly on the recommendations, particularly the travel policy changes. The board is expected to review Wilkins’ proposals at meetings in June and September.

Created in 1996, Enterprise Florida is a private-public partnership that acts like a commerce department. When it started, the vision was for a more nimble agency than a typical bureaucracy. It was supposed to have a 50-50 split between public and private funding. In reality, the agency relies on taxpayers for more than 90 percent of its costs.

The organization has a 64-member board — including top officials from Disney, Publix and Florida Power & Light — that aims to recruit out-of-state companies and arrange contacts.

Scott didn’t start the year promising to undertake an overhaul of his biggest job creation tool, but he told the Enterprise Florida board Wednesday before Wilkins’ presentation that they now need to re-examine how everything operates.

“We’ve got to live in reality,” Scott said. “Right or wrong, the Legislature is not going to fund the quick-action closing fund. And I don’t see any reason that is going to change in the next session.”

But Scott insisted that does not mean he’s giving up on Enterprise Florida. He said creating jobs is part of his core mission and he will press forward.

“I can tell you in my case we are not going to stop,” Scott said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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