Chamber funding increased

COVINGTON -- County commissioners agreed to increase the county's annual appropriation to the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce by a vote of 3 to 2 Tuesday night.

The county currently appropriates $54,000 annually to the Chamber for economic development services. Commissioners committed to an increase in funding over the next 18 months.

Funding will be increased by $30,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year, from January to June 30, 2010. Funding will be increased by $66,500 for fiscal year 2011, running from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, for a total annual appropriation of $120,500.

Morgan said the $30,000 will be taken from the county's professional services fund while the $120,500 will be a general fund appropriation from the fiscal year 2011 budget.

Chamber Board of Directors Chair-elect Jerry Mays said that while the Chamber respects the burden on county finances and understands "the irony of requesting more money at this time," the increased funding is needed to draw new businesses and industries and maintain the commercial base. He said the move would send a strong message to the state and will put Newton County in a position to be at the top of the minds of prospects.

Mays said trends of reduced revenues, an inverted tax base and losing retail dollars to other counties need to be reversed.

Mays said the current $108,000 in annual funding from the city and county represents approximately 20 percent of total Chamber revenues. The rest of the Chamber's budget is paid by its 575 members, fundraisers and other events and programs.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said $120,500 would amount to each taxpayer paying about $1.20 per year for the Chamber's services.

"I don't think that's unreasonable. I strongly support going forward with that commitment and going forward with the $30,000 for this year," she said.

Commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming also backed the proposal.

Ewing said there is a misunderstanding in the community that the county is subsidizing the Chamber budget.

"Nothing could be further from the truth -- this is a contract for services," he said.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he could support funding $30,000 this year, but said it would be prudent to wait until revenue projections are made before committing funds for next year.

Mays responded that the Chamber needs a commitment now in order to recruit a qualified president to lead in economic development efforts.

"We need to know how much funding is available for this position," he said.

Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he would not vote for the fund increase because he did not know about the request for $120,500 until Tuesday afternoon. He said it would be unethical to approve something he just found out about.

"I'm fed up with the way things happen around here. Things happen at the last minute," he said.

However, Ewing and Fleming said the board has been discussing the proposal for a month.

"Nothing has been kept secret. Nothing has been behind closed doors. Everything has been out in the open," Fleming said.

"It's disingenuous and dishonest for either one of them to sit here and say that," Simmons responded. "It's about being open, honest and transparent, and that's not what's happening."

City and county officials met with Chamber representatives in November to discuss the increase in funding. Simmons was not present. It was also discussed at a Dec. 1 Board of Commissioners meeting, during which Morgan presented a document outlining the funding proposal to each commissioner. The minutes of that meeting confirm that Simmons was present.

Commissioners approved a revised contract with the Chamber that stipulates that a Chamber representative will meet monthly with a five-member action committee comprised of the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, mayor of Covington, member of the Industrial Development Authority, the Newton County commissioner serving on the Joint Development Authority and a member of the Chamber Board of Directors.

The contract also states that the "Chamber shall at all times operate as an independent contractor and shall not at any time be the agent or employee of the County" and that all Chamber employees will be hired and paid by the Chamber, with no compensation from the county, and will report directly to the Chamber's Board of Directors and no other entity.

"It's very important the Chamber stands on its own two feet and be independent of any outside entity," said Fleming, who added that there should be no interference from elected officials.

The Covington City Council approved an increase to its appropriation on Dec. 7. The combined annual appropriations from the city and county will increase from $108,000 to $241,000 in fiscal year 2011.