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Posted: December 17, 2009 5:20 p.m.

County approves spending more on Chamber

Chamber moving forward with hiring new president

The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce can now begin seriously interviewing candidates to become the next president after the Board of Commissioners approved an 18-month contract to more than double spending.

Asked about the next steps, Chamber Search Committee Chairman Jerry Mays responded by email:

“The chamber feels like we know what kind of person and talent that we need, but are exploring a few more areas for candidates. There has not been a time set to start interviewing.”

On Tuesday, the BOC approved increasing chamber spending by a 3-2 vote, to allow the Chamber to hire an experienced, top-notch president and to increase money available for other economic development activities.

Previously, Covington and Newton County each spent $54,000 annually on economic development. Under the revised contract, approved by the city on Dec. 7 and the county Tuesday, both parties will spend up to $120,500 per year.

The increased spending will go into effect as of Jan. 1, 2010, and the city and county will each spend up to $30,000 more for the remainder of this fiscal year which ends on June 30. For fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, the parties will spend the full $120,500.

For the county, the $30,000 this year will come out of the professional services budget, which has around $124,000 left. The $120,500 for FY 2011 will come from the general fund.

The decision to approve spending money for the next fiscal year was a contentious one, with commissioners Earnest Simmons and J.C. Henderson voting against the 18-month contract.

Both Simmons and Henderson said they could support spending $30,000 more this year, but committing money to next year’s budget was a different story.

Simmons, in particular, was upset because he felt the board had only discussed spending an additional $30,000 this year.

“There was no mention whatsoever of $120,500 that was supposed to go into FY 2011. Number one I don’t like surprises. I don’t think that right or ethical, and I will not be asked to vote on something I think is unethical,” he said.

Simmons said he thought it was irresponsible to vote for something in next year’s budget with the state of the economy.

“It’s not right. Certain people sitting behind the desk say it’s a great idea. No it’s not a great idea, because that not what was brought to the table,” Simmons said. “To me, I’m not going to vote for it. I’m just really fed up with the way things happen around here. (We’re) not told about things until the last minute.”

Neither Simmons nor Henderson attended a Nov. 19 joint work session at the center, where representatives from the BOC, city council and chamber discussed future spending. While the BOC discussed increasing annual spending to $120,500 at its Dec. 1, meeting, an 18-month contract was not explicitly mentioned, though it was implied.

Commissioners Mort Ewing, Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming did attend the work session and said they understood that the BOC would be voting for increases for both fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

“I have to respectfully disagree too. This has been a dialogue going on for about a month and a half,” Fleming said. “I’m sorry if some people were left out, but this has all been discussed and out in the open. I’ve know I’ve contacted several members at the chamber to discuss this … nothing has been kept secret, nothing been kept behind close doors and to say that it has is wrong and untrue,” Fleming said.

Before the vote, Mays presented the Chamber’s rationale for asking the city and county for an increased investment. He said declining tax revenues, an inverted tax bases and struggling local businesses all suggested the need for improved economic development.

“We respect the difficulty of the county’s current financial situation and understand the irony of requesting more money at this time. However, the economy will turn, and this funding allows us to be competitive with surrounding counties,” Mays said. “Quality economic development has the real potential to return far more in long lasting benefits than it costs.”

The BOC tabled this decision at the Dec. 1 meeting, because it wanted to update its contract, which was signed originally in 2002.

The updated contract specifies that the chamber will provide monthly written reports and in-person quarterly reports.

Another added provision is that a chamber representative will meet monthly with an action committee, comprised of the county chairman, Covington mayor, a member of the Industrial Authority, Newton County’s member of the Joint Development Authority and a member of the chamber’s board of directors. The action committee will serve in an advisory capacity, according to the contract.

The final change was this line: “It is further expressly understood that all employees of the Chamber shall report directly to the Chamber’s Board of Directors and not to any other entity.

Fleming and other politicians had said they wanted to make sure that political desires did not influence chamber decisions.

The county’s total fiscal year 2011 budget will be $673,000, with $241,000 being provided by the city and county, and $432,000 being provided by chamber business members and chamber events and fundraisers.

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