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  • Last modified 261 days ago (March 1, 2017)

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And we’re paying for what?

Last week, county commission chairman Randy Dallke asked an $825,000 question, and the answer is one all county taxpayers should be looking for.

$825,000 is what the commission’s economic development task force wants as a 5-year financial commitment from the county for its proposed Marion County Community Economic Development Corporation.

Dallke’s question was simple, common-sense, and to the point: He wanted to know what information the task force used to come up with that $165,000 a year for five years figure.

Any banker considering an $825,000 business loan with no capital behind it would want to know that and more before committing to the deal. Banks don’t shell out loans to anyone who walks through the door with a good idea; they give loans to people with good ideas who have well-developed business plans with specific objectives.

Dallke’s question was financially responsible, something we taxpayers expect from our elected officials, even if we don’t always get it. Curiously, commissioner Dianne Novak, who pushed financial accountability in her campaign, didn’t seem to think such details were needed to forge ahead.

But Dallke’s question was such an insightful one that it’s all the more puzzling why Tuesday, without any more information than they had last week, and not yet knowing where the money will come from, commissioners voted to hand over $165,000 for five years, beginning in 2018, and more this year if they can find the money to do so.

The task force presented its proposal two weeks ago with the fanfare of slideshow presentation long on process and stock economic verbiage, but short on substance of the kind Dallke asked about.

Researched across eight months, there was evidence showing similar arrangements have produced favorable results in other counties, but there was little detail in the way of prioritized objectives. Bylaws presented described how the organization would function, but little about what it would do other than typical cliché phrases about areas it would try to do something about.

It’s a good concept, one with the possibility to shake us out of our long-held silos to marshal resources for a concerted, coordinated assault against the threats to our economic well-being.

But how was it decided that county taxpayers should pony up $825,000?

And that’s just the beginning. With the county’s commitment now in hand, Marion and Hillsboro are next in line for task force requests. What will the rationale be for the amounts they want that will undoubtedly push the total ask well over $1 million?

If Sheriff Rob Craft walked into the commission and asked for $165,000 more in his budget with the justification that he could use it to keep people safer, we’d all agree the goal is worthwhile, but he’d walk out empty-handed if he didn’t have a plan and numbers to back it up.

Agencies that depend on annual financial commitments from the county for their services know that their requests won’t go anywhere without descriptions of the services and how the requested money supports them.

An economic development corporation separate from county and city government but dependent on them for finances should get the same sort of scrutiny before officials commit my money and yours to it.

We’re not asking the task force to produce a crystal ball and tell us all of the things the corporation will accomplish by 2023; that’s impossible. But, “We believe this is a great idea, so please give us money and we’ll figure out as we go along what we can do with it, and we promise things will get better,” wouldn’t pass muster for prospective business borrowers, nonprofit agency executives, department heads, or grant seekers, and it shouldn’t here, no matter how pressing the need.

We suspect that more details will be forthcoming, and we hope more clearly delineated and ranked priority areas, more detailed activity objectives, and how a proposed budget would be allocated to support those come along before Marion and Hillsboro have to decide on their levels of support.

Meanwhile, as commissioners deliberate where they’re going to get their share, which in annual doses is double what they have budgeted for economic development, we’re going to call out the elephant in the room

There’s little justification to be found, if any at all, to continue a county-government-operated economic development office and shell out an additional $165,000 a year to a county-focused economic development corporation.

There are program and funding peculiarities that would have to be worked out, but if the intent is a unified, consistent approach to promoting and building the county, then a new corporation, headed by its board and new executive director, should work together with the county to make it happen, preferably in time for the 2018 budget year.

Of course, this also raises the question of what Marion and Hillsboro should do with their own economic development programs in relation to a countywide corporate partner. We’ll stay away from that one for the time being, suggesting only that the answers to that, lacking any others, could determine if a new corporation will fly at all.

— david colburn

Last modified March 1, 2017

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