City Council approves interlocal agreement
Published 9:40 am Friday, April 15, 2016
A new joint economic and community development board (JECDB), which has garnered support from Watauga City Council and Carter County Commission, received the stamp of approval by the Elizabethton City Council Thursday, on one condition.
The condition was to amend the agreement to include two additional positions on the board, for a total of 11 members. It passed in a vote of 6-1, with Councilman Wes Frazier voting against it.
Councilman Richard Tester made the motion that the interlocal agreement to create a new JECDB be amended to include two additional members. Councilman Jeff Treadway seconded the motion, rounding the original number of five seats up to 11.
When first presented to County Commission, the interlocal agreement had the minimum number of members on the JECDB as required by Tennessee Public Chapter 1101. These are the mayors of the county and all municipalities within, as well as one private citizen who owns Greenbelt property.
Having a JECDB is required, and without a compliant JECDB, the statute says Mayors cannot certify compliance with the law to receive grants. The JECDB not only makes it possible to certify for grants, but its primary purpose according to PC 1101 is to “foster communication relative to economic and community development between and among governmental entities, industry, and private citizens.”
“The primary point is to add two more members, those members being a representative of the Elizabethton Electric System — I mean we can all recognize the value for economic development to have a utility director or designee —as well as the one from the Carter County School System,” Tester said. “I’ve actually evaluated this quite a bit, and there could be an argument for someone from the Elizabethton School System to be on there as well, but in an effort to not make the board too large, but diverse, and to openly accomplish the purpose.”
The four members previously added would be one representative from the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, one from Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton and two members of the private sector nominated and elected by the board. The positions added Thursday would represent Carter County Schools and the Electric System.
Some JECDBs include these additional members and often double as an EDO, while others choose to keep only the minimum and have either a local EDO, a regional EDO or an economic and community development director.
The JECDB as proposed in the interlocal agreement will have no paid staff, no funding and will therefore require no audit. Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said it will make it possible to certify compliance with state statutes for grants and that plans for an economic development agency or individual will have to be determined.
The ability to certify for grants has been a primary aspect of Humphrey’s motivation for creating a JECDB that is compliant with state statutes. In March, Humphrey said the county has been awarded an approximately $500,000 grant to expand the health department which they cannot accept until a compliant board is in place.
Prior to the March Council meeting, Humphrey had agreed to add four members to the five-member board outlined by the initial interlocal agreement. This resulted from discussion between Humphrey, Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander, councilmen and City Manager Jerome Kitchens. The motion to add two more members was not music to his ears.
“We expanded from five to nine, now we want to go to eleven, tomorrow it will be fifteen,” Humphrey said to Councilmen. “What are you doing, creating a social club? We need an organization that’s going to work — boots on the ground.”
Alexander referenced an email in which Humphrey had said no change to the number of members on the board would be allowed.
“Last time I checked, you don’t have a vote on that,” said Alexander.
Alexander said they were trying to bring economic development leaders to the table by adding members.
“If an industry is looking to locate, do you not think they’re going to want to see if the electric infrastructure is there or what the schools are like?” Alexander said. “You’re making an argument that’s not valid.”
Humphrey said that is the job of the EDO.
“The EDO and the JECDB are two different things,” Humphrey said. “If and when this passes, then Carter County Commission will be given alternatives as to what they want to proceed with as far as an EDO is concerned. Will it be Washington County Economic Development Council? Will it be Kingsport Networks? Will it be the Greeneville Partnership? Or will it be something of their own — something we can afford?”
Humphrey noted the success of Johnson County, in which one woman works part-time as an economic and community development director as well as a tourism director for a population of about 18,000. That director, Karla Purdhomme, said she applied for and acquired more than $10 million in grants last year, and Humphrey noted this fact to City Councilmen.
“They have a board that meets the bare bones requirement,” Humphrey said. “They don’t have a ton of money. You don’t have to have a six-figure paid president to do the work, and they brought in $10.5 million dollars, and they did it for a fraction, probably under $50,000 a year.”
He said some neighboring organizations and EDOs spend or have an operating budget over a million dollars and do not yield better results than Johnson County.
“So why would we want to live above our means — why would we want to create something other than the bare basic minimum, so that we can ensure compliance?” Humphrey said.
Alexander asked what the harm would be in adding two very important people to the board.
“What you’re trying to do is expand it into a coordinating committee for the establishment of a growth plan — two different things. Let’s keep it simple,” Humphrey said.
In some counties, the JECDB also functions as the economic development organization (EDO), but in others, the EDO operates separately.
Currently, the Carter County Tomorrow (CCT) functions as both a JECDB and an EDO for Carter County. If the interlocal agreement is passed by Watauga, Johnson City and Carter County, it will create a new JECDB. What will happen to the economic development aspect of CCT or its funding of more than $100,000 annually has not been determined.
Humphrey handed out a compliance report which he said was compiled from over 40,000 documents that he and his assistant Susan Robinson have reviewed. Two violations highlighted in the report note the exclusion of Johnson City, a municipality of Carter County, on the CCT Board and the lack of an annual audit, which are both required by PC 1101.
Treadway questioned the validity of the claims that CCT was not in compliance from the report and said he had never seen it before tonight.
Humphrey said that last month, he invited anyone that wanted to review those documents could contact him, and no one called.
Alexander said he had seen no documentation stating CCT was not in compliance.
During the public hearing, resident Roy Livingston asked Alexander to read a paragraph of an email from Ted Townsend, Chief of Staff of Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. In it, Townsend said it is the responsibility of each local government to ensure compliance with the statute. He said state ECD cannot make that determination on behalf of local government.
“If Carter County can certify that it is compliant with the JECDB statute, ECD will be able to continue to provide grants to Carter County,” Townsend wrote. “If Carter County cannot certify that it is compliant, ECD will be able to provide grants to Carter County once Carter County can make that certification again.”
Although Carter County Commission and Watauga City Council have approved the interlocal agreement, they will have to approve the agreement again because of the addition of six members. The future of an EDO — local or regional — was not discussed.
Humphrey approached the Council again just before the vote and made a request.
“If this passes, could you please advance to me a copy of this and then I will contact the city of Johnson City and then we will get that on their agenda,” Humphrey Said. “Of course it is a delay. It will have to go back before County Commission and City of Watauga. Sometimes there has to be a little bit of compromise.”