JECDB conflict turns on mandate

Friday, March 28, 2008

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

A year-old conflict over money took a new turn Tuesday after a state-mandated panel for economic and community development adopted its annual budget.

The dollar amounts are small compared to the governmental budgets involved. Conflict arose more over control and independence than commitment to the development panel's purpose.

This dispute evolved as the Joint Economic and Community Development Board of Directors received a recommendation on how to reorganize the panel intended to foster communication between government, industry and residents on economic and community development projects in Marshall County.

State law requires each county to have a JECDB. They participate in Tennessee's Three Star rating of towns and counties for grants, and provide a contact person for the state Department of Economic and Community Development when businessmen and women are looking for a place to set up shop.

The amount of money appropriated has been seen by county officials as a reason to obtain more control since the county is required, under a state formula, to provide 68 percent of the JECDB budget. In response, JECDB officials propose to increase the county's representation on a 21-member board.

However, it's deeper than that. A proposal to restate the inter-local agreement between the county and its four municipalities provides for adjustments to the board's funding throughout the fiscal year, instead of just annually when such spending plans are adopted.

Marshall County Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill said the next budget for the JECDB lists more money from the county than what it appropriated.

Neill recalls the county's appropriation at $82,000.

She cast the only vote against the JECDB's $83,000 budget, a figure rounded up from $82,918.87 by Board Chairman Edmund Roberts. The proposed budget he distributed at the board meeting is down from $87,919.87, an amount described as the total originally requested.

The difference of approximately $5,000 prompted county budget committeemen to balk last year when that increase was sought from the county. Budget committeemen stalled the process of amending the budget, asking whether the county was obliged to provide the additional money.

It was, according to a document released Tuesday and Neill's interpretation of the agreement that's been in place for years.

Last year, local government leaders were considering a proposal to hire Buxton, a San Antonio, Texas-based business that specializes in analysis of market information to help match products with consumers. Subsequent to the county's refusal to participate by adding some $5,000 to the JECDB budget, Lewisburg and Chapel Hill have hired Buxton under a contract that costs less, but was approved as providing the level of service needed for the municipalities.

Data generated by Buxton can be used by existing retailers, but it's seen as an avenue toward landing a so-called sit-down restaurant in the county. Examples cited include Applebee's, Chili's and O'Charlie's.

And amid assertions from some officials that there was no cause-and-effect relationship, Jamie Stitt, the first executive director for the JECDB here, resigned and took a job with the state's Three Star program. That happened after pay raise proposals were aired. Without an executive, officials see now as the time to adjust the inter-local agreement.

The lack of an executive was also the reason given by county commissioners for not entering any agreement with Buxton. Neill said they felt having such a contract needed an executive director for the JECDB to monitor progress.

"I'll vote for the expenditure if I can see results," she said, adding that six to nine months after the Buxton deal was postponed for lack of an executive, the board still doesn't have anyone to oversee the contract.

As for the requirement that the county and its municipalities must increase funding or face sanctions, Neill says, "It's in the current agreement."

And the agreement should include a section calling for a "maintenance of effort" clause, according to Lewisburg Mayor Bob Phillips, who didn't attend Tuesday's JECDB meeting. Such a clause is in the revised agreement as presented to the board this week.

"Maintenance of effort budget means the board's prior year's budget plus the inflation rate for the prior calendar year," according to the document presented Tuesday. "No participating government may choose not to fund the board's budget for less than the Maintenance of Effort Budget."

The document also states, "In the event a participating government does not fully fund its contribution, the board may establish and impose such sanctions or conditions as it deems proper; including, but not limited to suspending the right to vote at meetings of the board or executive committee."

Neill suggests that part of the proposed inter-local agreement be "better defined." She adds that, "I don't know that a board ought to have the ability to sanction the county or a city for a perceived non-compliance."

Furthermore, "Anything over 'X amount' of money should be a request," she said, explaining how the proposed agreement should be adjusted to define a base budget for the JECDB.

"You cant arbitrarily fund a budget," Neill said a day after the board meeting.

The draft of the restated inter-local agreement was distributed during the Tuesday night meeting about 15 minutes before Neill spoke with others about such agreements. As she agreed the conflict is rooted in county budget committee debate last year, Chad Fox, the president of the Chamber of Commerce who's a member of the JECDB, was asked for his point of view.

"You have to keep in mind," Fox said of adjusting budgets during the year, "there will be fluctuations."

One is the price of fuel, he said.

"It's skyrocketed," Fox said.

Earlier, County Commissioner Mickey King reacted differently. He said county commissioners had invited JECDB members to a meeting of the county's committee on tourism and industrial development for a discussion on how the inter-local agreement might be rewritten.

"We have asked them to sit down with us and they are refusing to do it," King said.

Such a discussion would appear to be possible at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday when the JECDB Executive Committee is to meet in one of the conference rooms at Columbia State Community College's campus in Lewisburg on South Ellington Parkway.

Roberts announced the meeting and invited members of the full board to attend and provide comments. Roberts said he's also asked the five mayors in the county to invite their aldermen, council members and commissioners to participate.

Discussion on the draft of the inter-local agreement was deferred until then because the document had just been typed, Roberts said. It's a result of discussion among the executive committeemen on March 18. Neill reacted to the broad invitation, asking, "Why would the full board meet on it?"

She pointed out that while the executive committee is to draft a new document, such agreements are to be approved by the governmental bodies that fund the JECDB, and not the board itself.

Roberts replied that his suggested "roundtable" discussion would allow suggestions from a variety of people.

Eddie Wiles, a local banker who is also the chairman of Lewisburg's Industrial Development Board, added, "Next week, I'm not coming to vote on anything."

Chapel Hill Town Administrator Mike Hatten concurred: The April 1 meeting appears to be a way to "kind of let everybody have a say."

The inter-local agreement being studied by JECDB members and other local government officials includes a new array of membership descriptions, as well as terms of service for the members. Discussion March 18 indicated agreement that members could be reappointed. The mayors at the executive committee meeting acknowledged that it's been difficult to get attendance from a 21-member board, so those who are appointed will probably be continued.

JECDB officials counted each other Tuesday night to be sure they'd have a quorum so the meeting could begin.