Local News

Commissioners nix IDA funding ... again

SUNDAY - For a third time, the Highlands County commissioners have turned down an IDA-EDC request for continued funding. Four, depending on who's counting. Last year, commissioners sliced 10 percent off the Industrial Development Authority-Economic Development Commission's annual budget. Two months ago, the commissioner said no to a $128,000 increase. On Aug. 22, commissioners said no again when they whacked the IDA's entire $215,000 budget. On Aug. 29, former IDA chair John Shoop came to the meeting and requested that funding be restored. No, but Commissioner Don Elwell proposed that the agency go out and prove itself by recruiting a new business or industry for Highlands County. Then the board might restore funding.
Finally, on Tuesday, Commissioner Greg Harris said he had been contacted by Shoop again. How about giving the IDA half of the funds it received last year? The request found zero traction. "About $108,000," Harris said. That will allow the IDA to keep recruiting a new industry. If the IDA fails, it will have time to work on an exit strategy - that is, how to handle future economic development prospects and requests for demographic and financial information. Since the IDA currently has reserve funds, $108,000 "would give them the funding they had last year," Harris said. "There are some decent expenditures to close this up. We could fund them more after the next six months." Elwell said he would reconsider his vote Thursday night when the commissioners convene again for the Sept. 5 special budget meeting. "But I'm not for funding it right away," Elwell said. He still wanted to follow his original idea, which would pressure the IDA to bring in a new company. In the meantime, Elwell reasoned, "They might have to run lean for six months. Maybe change their structure a little bit. If the board agreed, would the $108,000 come out of contingency fund, Commissioner Ron Handley asked? "If they had made progress, show us it's worth it, perhaps we would then consider - and I emphasize, underline, consider - helping the next six months," Commission Chair Jack Richie said. "We have gone through many years of promises and excuses. We have got to make a decision and stick with it." In the meantime, Richie suggested, the EDC - the half of the agency that operates on contributions - could solicit money from members to stay alive. Highlands County Administrator June Fisher said Highlands' neighboring counties weren't bashful about letting her know where they stood on forming a seven-county metropolitan planning organization with Polk County. "I didn't get a lot of positive feedback," Fisher said. "They probably wouldn't be joining us." It's possible that the federally mandated and federally funded transportation policy-making organization could include only Highlands and Polk counties. "My plan was to fight for six," Fisher said. They would include Highlands, Okeechobee, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee and one other county. "This is population driven," County Attorney Ross Macbeth said. "The pending threat is that we would not get federal or state money?" Commissioner Jim Brooks asked. "The possibility that would happen is rather miniscule," Richie suggested. "Who drew this line of urbanized areas?" Handley asked. "It was not us," Fisher said. "We looked into the methodology. We thought it was kind of a stretch. It skips and hops, but they have an outline they are consistent with." "Urban, really?" Elwell deadpanned. "Spring Lake, urban?" "They are going to force us into an MPO somewhere." Handley suggested that an MPO is really "an agreement with a gun held to your head." Tourist Development Director John Scherlacher was granted $10,030 for the Lake Jackson Veteran's Beach boat channel dredging project, plus another $50,000 for a future lakes project. Another $50,000 grant was approved for the City of Avon Park for the Lake Tulane Restoration Project. Commissioners also extended a $6,000 Highlands County Tourist Development Council grant to Lora Todd and Push Events Productions to advertise outside of Highlands County for future six downtown events. A $1,000 Highlands County Tourist Development Council grant went to the City of Avon Park to advertise the sixth annual Oktoberfest. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828