County didn’t think through EDA’s benefits

Published 12:20 am Sunday, January 25, 2009

Last week in an astonishing show of ignorance and disrespect, three Adams County supervisors voted to pull the funding plug on the community’s economic development effort.

The decision, apparently, came with little concern for the true effectiveness of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority or the actual financial impact to the county.

Worse yet, the decision came with no prior communication to the EDA board or the county’s funding partner, the City of Natchez.

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Just over six months ago, in July 2008, the county received the final payment on a rather complicated land deal brokered by the EDA.

The result of the deal was that the former International Paper Natchez mill site was split up with most of the land sold to alternative fuels producer Rentech.

In the deal, the county wound up with approximately $2.9 million. Of that, $1.1 million was pledged to help improve some of the land around the Rentech site as the development continues.

The $1.8 million remaining was just money from the sky. The EDA did the heavy lifting.

At the time, supervisors said they planned to use the funds for a “rainy day” fund.

Ironically, however, they’ve already started nibbling at the funds. The chancery court clerk’s office confirmed Friday that approximately $250,000 of the funds were used to fund pay increases for county workers.

That’s interesting considering the supervisors made a big deal out of the tax cuts they made in this year’s budget. The tax cuts yielded a refund to taxpayers of approximately $184,000.

So the county saved $184,000, but spent $250,000. That’s doesn’t seem like fiscal progress or reform. It seems like the rainy day fund, not wise government oversight, results in the tax break.

The facts show the EDA has been fairly successful recently, despite occasional dysfunctional moments between board members and the former director. Perhaps no “big fish” have been landed, but the Rentech deal certainly shows the EDA paid for itself, at least the county’s portion.

In addition to Rentech —netting the county nearly $1.8 million in unencumbered funds — the EDA also helped bringing the new prison, too.

The Rentech funds alone covered the county’s EDA funding — $175,000 a year — for more than 10 years.

But three supervisors ignored this. Those numbers don’t add up in supervisor math.

Announcing mid-year that the county wishes to yank the funding is both disturbing and illegal.

The county is under a contract with the city. Breaking that trust is a public display of discord at a time when we our community needs to be acting as one.

Maybe the county’s decision was simply a show of its muscle, much like former Natchez Mayor Philip West did in 2005 when he announced a decision to yank EDA funding. Eventually the city came to its senses.

If not a muscle-flexing move, then perhaps the issue is dissatisfaction with the EDA’s structure or effectiveness, well within the county’s right to question.

In that case, however, meeting with the current EDA board and city leaders is a better route for supervisors to communicate their concerns.

At this point, no long-term harm has been done if the county quickly moves to get on the same page with city and business leaders — most of whom realize the importance of a professional economic development effort.

Even if the ultimate structure of the EDA needs to change, the need for the EDA remains and one need look no further than the county’s bank account to see the results.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539.