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County decides to end relationship with EDC

The county severes its ties with the nearly defunct economic development panel.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- County Administrator Paul McIntosh batted .500 Tuesday as he made a pitch to the Hernando County Commission to move forward on transition talks with the nearly defunct Economic Development Commission.

Commissioners unanimously approved McIntosh's proposal to officially end the county's relationship with the EDC on April 1.

But the administrator struck out with his recommendation that the county hire two EDC employees on a contractual basis to continue economic development efforts until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Citing McIntosh's failure to provide job descriptions or expectations for the contracted employees, the commissioners told him to come back in two weeks with more details.

"We have no idea of their job responsibilities. We have no idea of their qualifications, their educational backgrounds," Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse also criticized as excessive the proposed annual salary rate of $50,000 for one employee, Bonnie Chichester. Chichester currently earns $55,000 a year from the EDC.

"That's a high price tag," Whitehouse said. "I really feel when we're bringing somebody for $50,000 we need to justify that to the taxpayers."

McIntosh also recommended hiring the EDC's clerk at an annual rate of $25,000 and an interim director at an annual rate of $65,000. Combined, he estimated that the contract for the three employees and operating expenses from April 1 to Sept. 30 would cost about $145,000.

McIntosh defended his plan, saying he had followed the board's unanimous direction to work with the current EDC staff on the transition and to continue ongoing economic development efforts. "The only way to do that is to bring on the existing staff," he said.

Commissioner Mary Aiken said it would look "dumb" to hire existing EDC employees after the county's "heart-wrenching break-up" with the agency.

Commissioner Diane Rowden, who described McIntosh's proposal as "totally inadequate and unfair to existing county employees," suggested that the EDC duties be temporarily assigned to staffers such as Deputy Administrator Dick Radacky.

Rowden also questioned what will become of the EDC's office equipment and its building at the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park.

McIntosh said an inventory of the agency's desks, computers, chairs and other equipment is ongoing. He also requested the EDC turn over all its business records to the county, justifying the blanket request by saying that because public money was used in virtually every aspect of the EDC's operations, the county is entitled to all of them. As for the building, county officials were unsure what might happen.

County Attorney Garth Coller rejected Rowden's suggestion to sell it, noting it belongs to the EDC.

"The building's not ours. The land is," Coller said. "Technically, legally, the county doesn't at this point own it so we have no right to dispose of it."

McIntosh said if the EDC defaults on its $1,200 monthly mortgage payments, the bank likely will foreclose.

Coller said there are two ways that the building would come under county control: either at the end of the EDC's 20-year lease, or if the agency defaults on its mortgage payments.

In the past, McIntosh said, the EDC used money it received from the county to pay the mortgage.

County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said the bank would likely grant control of the building to the county, because it owns the land underneath. "Banks don't want property," he said.

At Commissioner Nancy Robinson's urging, the board voted to add a compliance audit of the EDC to the financial audit it has already called for.

A compliance audit will examine whether the agency followed its contract as well as binding state and federal laws. Rowden voted against the move, saying she would prefer a performance audit, which would measure how well the agency met its goals. Aiken also voted against the motion.

After the meeting, EDC transition team member Len Tria said he would schedule a meeting to discuss the county's decisions with the other transition team members. He criticized some comments made during the public portion of the meeting that suggested current EDC employees should not be hired because they couldn't be trusted to do a good job. Tria said it is unfair to "cast aspersions on people's character and integrity."

"Do the audit. See what the audit finds," he said. "Then you can make factual statements, not hypotheticals."

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