Polk approves EDC director contract extension by 4-1 vote

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Polk County extended current economic development director Robert Williamson’s contract until the end of the fiscal year by a 4-1 vote.

Williamson has been under contract with the county for the last 16 months.

Commissioners met Monday, Dec. 7 and approved the contract extension, with commissioner Ray Gasperson voting against the contract. The county made the decision following a public hearing where a couple residents spoke against the contract and one resident spoke in favor of the contract extension.

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The contract extension was approved for the same amount as last year’s contract at $65,000 per year, or $5,416 per month.

Pat Salomon said she had several questions regarding the extension of the contract with Strategic Work Systems Inc.

Salomon said last year the county paid $5,416 a month to Williamson and the contract stipulates this is a full time requirement.

“But acting as county economic director is not Mr. Williamson’s only job,” said Salomon. “Mr. Williamson, as the president of Strategic Work Systems maintains a website advertising his keynote speaker services, consulting services, workshops and seminars and his other business, thevisualmachine. He is the only staff mentioned as providing these services so one could safely assume he is not devoting full time to us. Maybe not even half time.”

Williamson responded to the Bulletin following the meeting that Strategic Work Systems Inc. has another more than a full-time employee, a part-time contractor and several business partners that accomplish the company’s work.

Williamson said Polk’s office of economic development has been an office of one contracted person, with no assistants or secretaries. He said this past year his responsibilities have included quite a few 60-70 hour weeks, including working weekends, evenings and holidays. He also said a full-time job in Polk County government is 37.5 hours per week.

“Because of my international reputation from time to time I am invited to do some keynote speaking and daily consulting with manufacturing companies,” Williamson responded. “In no way does this interfere with my full time 37.5 hours per week assignment with Polk County. None of these casual opportunities represent an economic development conflict of interest. In fact, these opportunities help keep our local thinking aligned with where business and industry is heading in America.”

During the public hearing regarding extending Williamson’ contract, Williamson said Polk County is entering an era of unprecedented economic opportunity and gave statistics that he said define our county today.

Williamson said economic growth in Polk County and the region has become apparent to business and property owners, service providers and entrepreneurs thanks largely to the development of Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC).

Polk has 482 employers with 3,655 employees and $98 million in payroll and growing, Williamson said with 1,827 proprietors (individual business owners) with a $73 million income. Polk’s employees do not include 24 percent of its employed residents who work outside of Polk County or the 25 percent who work out of state, Williamson said.

There are five factors currently shaping Polk County’s future, according to Williamson, which include poverty, transportation, unemployment, low-wage jobs and senior citizens.

Williamson said more than 17 percent of Polk’s residents live in poverty with more than 25 percent of children under 18 years old living in poverty and may not have a regular source of nutritious food.

Nearly 20 percent of Polk residents may not have access to reliable transportation for post-secondary education/training and/or for regular employment, Williamson told commissioners.

Polk’s actual unemployment rate, Williamson said, is the same as Rutherford County’s 11 percent, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce including working age adults that have no record of employment.

Polk County ranks the lowest in average weekly wages paid in the eight regional county area at $478 per week compared to Rutherford (second lowest) at $528 per week and Buncombe at $631 per week (highest of the eight regional counties).

“A large number of employed residents are food service workers which typically means part-time, low wage jobs ($344/week),” said Williamson. “While they are employed they work at several part-time jobs to make ends meet.”

Williamson also said 35 percent of Polk’s residents are 60 years of age or older compared to 26 percent in Rutherford County.

“Economic development is about supporting and growing our businesses, our service providers, and our people,” Williamson said. “At to a lesser extent it’s about attracting new businesses.”

He said economic development is about the obligation the county has to help prepare residents to participate in this new economic boom and economic development is about growing our ability to respond to opportunities and to support economic growth in Polk and the region.

“It’s about what is in the best interest of our residents, our municipalities, and our businesses,” Williamson told commissioners. “It’s about preserving what makes Polk County a great place to live.”

Salomon said following Williamson’s presentation that she had hoped he would point out what he has accomplished so far and she wasn’t talking about his Power Point presentations and all the meetings he attends.

“What businesses has he attracted to the county?” Salomon asked. “How many new jobs has he created? Other than the ill-advised location for a manure composting operation? I hope he does not claim any responsibility for the Tryon International Equestrian Center which has not and will never need his assistance. Shortly after taking this job, he totally discounted the importance of the horse industry to the local economy.”

Salomon asked commissioners how Williamson’s salary can be justified and what taxpayers are getting for their money.

In response to the public hearing, Williamson said the Economic Development Policy & Strategic Plan is not about attracting new businesses as much as it is about growing the existing businesses, expanding job opportunities and nurturing entrepreneurs and small businesses. He said Polk is a very rural county and there has been a public outcry to keep it that way and that’s why the county linked the new economic development policy and strategy with the comprehensive land use plan, or the county’s 20/20 Vision Plan.

Williamson said there are very few if any properties available for small/light industrial development in Polk County. The cost of preparing land and providing the infrastructure is often more costly than the land itself, he said.

“I see dozens of new business site selection opportunities each month that Polk County cannot support,” said Williamson.

Resident Joe Cooper, chair of the Polk County Appearance Commission, said Williamson has met with his organization several times and has provided many suggestions that have been very useful.

“I’m here to recommend the extension of his contract,” Cooper told commissioners.

Resident Ira Karet also said he is concerned about the possibility there is other economic development work being done by Williamson.

“I ask that you consider those other activities to determine whether they might be a conflict of interest, which is specifically forbidden in this contract,” Karet said.

Commissioner Michael Gage said he thinks Williamson has demonstrated the ability to give details on what he has been doing and he is very satisfied with what Williamson has accomplished as economic development director.

Gasperson said a year ago in November Williamson justified his current salary of $65,000 a year by looking at other similar sized counties’ salaries. Gasperson said he was under the impression Williamson would be working full time but he has a sense Williamson takes on other work too. Gasperson did not vote in favor of Williamson’s contract last year either.

The contract terms began on Nov. 18, the time Williamson’s 2015 contract ended and will continue through June 30, 2016, which is the end of the county’s current fiscal year.