Georgia Hiller is nothing if not persistent.
With her fellow Collier County commissioners, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all on board with a plan to lease space at a manufacturing facility at the Immokalee Airport to entrepreneur Pete Salazar, Hiller continues to question the propriety of the deal.
Since June 12, when the County Commission approved 4-1 interior improvements to the building Salazar will lease, Hiller has bombarded the airport manager and other county staff members with dozens of public records requests about the arrangement.
In part, the requests seek financial information about Salazar's firm as Hiller questions whether Salazar qualifies for the federal small business program under which he will occupy a 20,000-square-foot building built with a combination of federal and local funds.
Her requests also seek building plans, such as the electrical schematics, and a set of documents Airport Director Chris Curry is reluctant to copy and distribute, since they pertain to airport security.
In June, county commissioners approved spending almost $300,000 in local and federal funds to finish the interior of a manufacturing facility built in an attempt to bring jobs to Immokalee.
Salazar has agreed to put an additional $200,000 of his own money into improvements specific to his business, such as reinforced flooring and overhead storage.
When it's done, Salazar plans to move his 14-employee operation from Hendry county back to Immokalee, where he started out building packing and harvesting equipment before outgrowing his space. He has agreed to a 10-year lease at $140,000 a year for the Immokalee plant.
Hiller was the lone vote against spending the money for the interior improvements.
Among her concerns, Salazar's company made too much money to qualify for the USDA grant that helped pay for the building; he may or may not have the wherewithal to pay his lease year after year and he may or may not move his employees back to Immokalee.
"Salazar got the county to, in effect, finance the cost of his 20,000-square-foot, $1.5 million building which he could not financially qualify to build himself. He also avoided the interest he would have had to pay on the mortgage," Hiller said when asked about her June 12 vote. "We don't need a Solyndra rerun in Collier County."
Curry, who has butted heads with Hiller since October, when he made an issue of her riding on restricted Immokalee Airport grounds in a vehicle unfamiliar to airport staff, sees Hiller's continued questioning of the Salazar project as an attempt to thwart progress at the airport. "She has been on the warpath trying to figure out reasons to prevent him from moving in," he said.
He acknowledges Hiller's right to request information but says she's been making duplicative requests to him, the county manager and the county attorney, taking up staff time. He estimates he has received more than 20 records requests on the matter, not counting additional requests made to other county employees.
At one point, the county attorney's office assigned a paralegal to go to the airport to collect all the documents Hiller is seeking.
The project has received multiple approvals from the FAA and USDA, Curry said.
Among the most recent, on July 11, Ada Rivera, a rural development specialist with the USDA, confirmed that Salazar's annual revenue falls below the $1 million limit imposed on grant qualifiers, a point Hiller has repeatedly inquired about. "The gross revenues were in excess of $1 million, however, costs of goods sold are deducted from it, which would bring the revenues significantly below the $1 million," Rivera wrote.
Hiller declined to elaborate on her continuing concerns over a project that appears to have gained all the necessary approvals. "This matter is under investigation and upon conclusion will be released to the appropriate authorities, not the newspaper," she wrote when asked to expand on her inquiries.
She may be referring to an audit of the grant being done by the office of Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock.
Curry says he's unaware of any other investigation.
"If it's not the USDA and it's not the FAA, I have no idea who it could be," he said.