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We need a county resident

To the Editor:

Before adding further funding to the millions in salaries paid to the EDC, a post-mortem of the last several years needs to be undertaken.

The Economic Development Commission operates on a failed organizational model. Its political friendships have allowed the EDC an atmosphere of ineffective review and lax accountability. It has never been required to develop a structured and budgeted plan outlining the strategic rationale for its projects; neither has it ever produced a single documented or verifiable statement of performance. Self-promoting public relations presentations have regularly been substituted for transparent and accurate annual reports. Empty promises concerning hoped-for prospects ranging from ethanol and plastics to diamonds and wood chips masked the fact that in 10 years only six businesses received EDC grants; two of these grants worked to prop up EDC’s own failing industrial parks. In tolerating the annual reporting violations of the EDC’s own by-laws, elected officials have, year after year, neglected their duty to protect the taxpayers.

Between 2001 and 2005, the EDC generally limited itself to the mundane task of helping to place tenants and buyers in the refurbished buildings that had come into the possession of the Committee of 100. However, during subsequent years, the EDC began an aggressive program of real estate development at two properties that have since become the Chocowinity and Washington Industrial parks.

Neither park has been a success. The entire $6.5 million speculative misadventure was doubtfully researched, overlooked the cyclical nature of our county’s economy and ignored the burdens of double taxation and high utility costs at the Washington site. While the EDC desperately tries to use additional subsidies to augment a scant 34 jobs created at Washington since 2006, Chocowinity remains empty.

Meanwhile, the connection between the Committee of 100 and the EDC has matured into a self-perpetuating confusion of tangled relationships. The executive director of the EDC is appointed by the county commissioners and also serves as the chief executive officer of the C100; which, in turn, receives monies from the EDC. The EDC’s executive director is paid directly by the taxpayers; while, as the C100’s chief executive officer, he appoints its governing board and is also paid an additional tax-subsidized salary by those same governors. This creates a needless interweaving of the county commissioners, the EDC’s board and governors of the C100 that readily serves the self-interest of the executive director. Further, it lulls each governing body into assuming that the others are managing the EDC’s activities when, in fact, no one has ever exercised the oversight required by both state law and EDC by-laws.

If taxpayers are going to fund economic development, then the function should be made a department within the county manager’s office. This will allow for transparency, managerial oversight and strict expense and capital budgeting.

Salaries, project costs, contingent liabilities arising from grant guarantees and the anticipated funding of matching grants all need to be integrated into the general budget. As a county employee, this department’s supervisor should be a county resident.

WARREN SMITH
Washington