Polk extends economic development contract for another $15k

Published 7:03 pm Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Polk County Board of Commissioners approved extending the contract for its consultant for an economic development plan and met disagreement on its decision.

Commissioners met Monday, Feb. 17 and approved paying Robert Williamson, with Strategic Work Systems Inc., another $15,000 over the next five months for work on the county’s proposed economic development plan and strategy.

Following two public comments against the expenditure, commissioner Michael Gage strongly voiced his opinion regarding the need for jobs in Polk County.

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“If we don’t start getting jobs we’re screwed,” Gage said. “If you don’t work in the county, you don’t spend money in the county. If you don’t work in the county, you don’t volunteer. We need to have some more jobs here. Not everybody’s rich, not everybody’s retired. Families are stressed. Something has to be done.”

Gage said the board got elected to govern and that’s what they are doing.

Commissioners are formulating a policy and they are bringing in other boards and the towns for input, Gage said. He said he has a lot of respect for the people serving on the county’s economic tourism and development (ETDC) board and they need resources if they are going to get anything done.

Commissioner Ray Gasperson said his original concern with the process was about public input.

He said when you get into a government process like an economic development plan you need to go out and get public support.

Gasperson told Williamson that he’s enjoyed their debates and discussions but along the way he has had concerns of whether or not the county was making a wise use of taxpayer money.

“Frankly, I can’t support any additional money,” Gasperson said.

He added that he didn’t know about the additional funding until he went through the county packet last week and he became even more concerned when he realized the money would be coming from the economic development budget without the consent of the economic development director or the ETDC board.

“Frankly I feel like the only way you should move forward is to get a recommendation from the ETDC if they are willing to spend this money,” said Gasperson.

Commissioner Tom Pack agreed with Gasperson on where the funding should come from and motioned to take the $15,000 out of fund balance instead of the proposed grant line item from the economic development budget. Pack’s motion was approved 4-1 with Gasperson voting against.

Gage said now is the time to get the ETDC board to come in and tell commissioners what they need.

“So, commissioner Gasperson, I will vote for this because this needs to get done,” Gage said. “Common people need this.”

Commissioners are setting up workshops with the ETDC and the farmland preservation board as well as the towns of Columbus and Tryon and City of Saluda for input prior to holding a public hearing on the draft document.

Public comments Monday, Feb. 17 included two residents who were both against extending Williamson’s contract.

Judy Heinrich said she was surprised when the county announced its pursuit of an economic development plan at the same time commissioners announced the consultant.

“Williamson was hired without any competition and comes without actual economic experience,” Heinrich said. “He was a bargain because his fee was just $6,000 and he was a local person with local knowledge.”

Williamson’s consulting background includes working with more than 300 industrial plants in the areas of manufacturing, assembly, mining and healthcare facilities, according to his resume.

Heinrich said with a new total of $21,000, it’s not as much of a bargain anymore. Polk hired Williamson in October 2013 for $6,000 to consult with the county on creating a plan.

Williamson’s original proposal was to facilitate a 4-hour planning session to review opportunities, to prepare a first draft of the plan, facilitate another 4-hour planning session to review the first draft and following the second draft, facilitate a session not to exceed a full day to refine the policy and strategy then prepare the final document and assist commissioners preparing for up to two public and/or committee meetings.

The new proposal is to continue for Williamson to meet with commissioners and the ETDC and farmland preservation board and the towns on a month-to-month retainer through June. The county will pay Williamson $3,000 per month for 40 to 60 hours per month. Williamson said there would be no additional charge if the hours exceed 60 hours per month.

Commissioners plan to conduct a workshop with the ETDC board and director and the farmland preservation board and director on March 6 at 6 p.m.

Heinrich said the county’s agricultural economic development director and its economic development director have been left completely out of the process. She also said the chamber of commerce needs to be involved and there has been little if any outreach to local businesses asking their needs.

She also said now commissioners want to devote another $15,000 by poaching the only funds the ETDC and economic development director have.

Commissioner chair Ted Owens told Heinrich the chair of the ETDC got copies of the draft plan Monday morning, so the board has the document almost two weeks in advance.

Heinrich responded that doesn’t change that commissioners are giving the board a document with what commissioners want it to say without any input.

Dennis Hill also spoke and said there has been no discussion with the economic director or the ETDC board as well as no participation during the workshops. He also said the money is being targeted from the economic development budget without involvement from the ETDC or the director. He said the county now has a consultant with no credentials costing $6,000 and requesting another $15,000.

“Sounds like the UDO (unified development ordinance) experience,” Hill said.