The Board of Commissioners decided they needed to see a new written contract, spelling out a budget and expectations, before they would commit to investing more money in the Chamber of Commerce.
On Tuesday, the BOC considered a proposal to increase spending on the chamber from $54,000 to up to $120,500. The increase would be contingent on the same increase by the city of Covington raising public investment in economic development from $108,000 to $241,000.
The county is considering increasing spending for two reasons. First, the county receives about 22 percent of its tax revenue from businesses and 78 percent from residential. The problem is that residents cost more in county services than they provide in tax revenue, while businesses do the opposite. The ideal split is 50-50, but county officials are hoping to simply improve the current situation and have set a preliminary goal of around 35 percent.
The second reason is that when compared to other counties, Newton County spends woefully little on economic development. A study completed by Henry County showed that Newton County spends less per person on economic development than many surrounding counties. With the increase Newton would be spending $1.85 per person, which would be on par but still less than the $2 per person spent by Coweta, Douglas, Fayette and Rockdale counties, all of which have been more successful at bringing in businesses.
All commissioners admitted an increased investment was needed, but they did not want to promise more money without being guaranteed more results. Economic development is a difficult field to quantify, because large industries rarely come, but government officials want to see more reporting on activities and money spent.
The current contract was signed in 2002, and the same contract has been renewed yearly through an appropriation agreement. The language describing the duties of the chamber is broad, stating such responsibilities as:
a) Organize and coordinate the economic and industrial development efforts of the county;
b) Report periodically to the county as requested or needed on the status and success of its economic and industrial development efforts and activities.
City and county officials have said they want increased accountability from the chamber, and Commissioner Mort Ewing said this was best accomplished by eliminating past gray areas dealing with duties and results.
While the increase would take effect for part of this fiscal year, Chairman Kathy Morgan said the estimated cost for the rest of this fiscal year would only be $30,000. The county had to cut millions and 16.5 jobs from this year’s budget and is trying to cut costs wherever possible because of the possibility of a $900,000 shortfall. Administrative Assistant John Middleton said the money would come out of the professional services budget, which has $137,000 in it.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he was concerned about adding any costs when employees were laid off previously and the county was still facing a potential shortfall.
Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he felt that more than doubling the amount of investment was too much at this time, and he felt a 10 percent increase was more reasonable.
In the end the BOC agreed to table the item until the county attorney drew up a contract.
The chamber has yet to start seriously pursuing president candidates because it didn’t know how much money it would be able to offer. At a combined city, county and chamber work session on Nov. 20, chamber representatives said the sooner the city and county could vote on increases the better. The proposal calls for the chamber president’s salary to increase from $94,000 to $125,000 with extra bonuses.
No one from the chamber was able to speak on the matter, but Morgan said she thought that a two-week delay on the vote would be OK. The Covington City Council may vote at the Dec. 7 meeting.