BOC tables Chamber proposal

COVINGTON -- Commissioners tabled Tuesday night a proposal to increase the county's appropriation to the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce for economic development services.

Commissioners said they want a written contract with the Chamber outlining all the specifics of any changes to the Chamber's organizational structure, how the additional money will be used and the expectations and role of the county and of the Chamber before they approve the increase in funding.

Newton County currently appropriates $54,000 per year to the Chamber for economic development services. Under the proposal presented by Chairwoman Kathy Morgan Tuesday night, the county would increase its appropriation by $66,500, for a total annual appropriation of $120,500.

Morgan said the Chamber notified the county that it was changing its economic development program, and the change necessitated the increased funding.

"This is their decision. We're not micromanaging the decision," Morgan said.

She said commissioners must decide whether to continue to let the Chamber handle economic development and whether to increase funding.

Currently, the Chamber's economic development budget is $540,000 per year, according to information Morgan provided commissioners Tuesday night. The Chamber pays for $432,000 of that, with the city and county each contributing $54,000.

The new proposed budget is about $673,000, with the Chamber's portion remaining the same and the county and city increasing their individual appropriations to $120,500. That would more than double the city and county's total contribution from $108,000 to $241,000.

The increase to the county's fiscal year 2010 budget, which runs through July, would be no more than $30,000, Morgan said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she is in favor of increasing the county's investment.

"As with any investment, sometimes you have to spend money to make money," she said. "Right now we are not making the kind of commitment we need to make to have strong economic development in this community."

Administrative Officer John Middleton said there is currently no written contract between the county and Chamber. Commissioner Mort Ewing said he wants one before approving anything.

"That would eliminate what I consider the gray areas that we've had in the past," he said, adding that the contract should outline the county's expectations and the Chamber's expectations.

"I want to make sure the president of the Chamber reports to the (Chamber) Board of Directors and no one else. We need to make that clear in the contract," he said. The Chamber is currently searching for a new president, following the resignation of former president John Boothby in September.

Though not discussed Tuesday night, the proposal also includes the formation of an economic development committee that would consist of the BOC chairman, mayor of Covington, a member of the Chamber board of directors, a member of the Industrial Development Authority and potentially a Newton County appointee to the Joint Development Authority. At previous meetings, it has been stated by officials with the county and Chamber that the president would be accountable to that committee but would report directly to the Chamber Board of Directors.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he can't see appropriating additional funds to the Chamber when the county laid off employees earlier this year because of a lack of funds.

"Do we really have the money to pay for this, or are we just adding another expense?" he asked.

Middleton said the county has budgeted about $137,000 for professional services, and the $30,000 increase expected for fiscal year 2010 would be taken from that fund. So far, about $13,000 has already been encumbered from that fund, with about $65,000 more in expenses expected, he said.

Fleming made the motion to table the matter until a contract could be completed.

Morgan said the longer the vote is postponed, the more difficult it will be for the Chamber to negotiate with candidates for the president's position because they can't provide a salary without knowing whether the local governments will increase funding.

"They can work off last year's salary, can't they? There's no rush for us," Commissioner Earnest Simmons said.

"They can do whatever they want. They're the Chamber. We're not micromanaging," Morgan responded.

County Attorney Tommy Craig suggested a consensus be taken on the funding level to give the Chamber direction, adding that the contractual agreement could be hashed out later.

"I'd rather not rush into anything and to have it all written down before we vote on it and vote on it all at one time," Fleming said.

The proposal was unanimously tabled until the BOC's Dec. 15 meeting.

Fleming requested that Chamber Board of Directors Chairman Joe Stier be present at that meeting to answer any questions from the BOC and that the contract be submitted to commissioners before the meeting so they will have adequate time for review.

The Covington City Council is expected to discuss the proposal at its Monday night meeting.