At its February 25 meeting, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors had three proposed options regarding county participation in the Tulare County Economic Development Corporation for the 2014-15 fiscal year. They could vote to not participate, vote to participate at the reduced level of $20,000, or vote to fully participate, which was done at a cost of $79,200 for the current fiscal year.
Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said that the county will always need economic development and to pull out completely would be a mistake. “How can you have a Tulare County Economic Development Corporation if the county is not part of it?” he asked, adding that the county plans on participating in EDC programs and, “I don’t believe in a free lunch.”
Supervisor Mike Ennis complained that representatives from the EDC never attend supervisors’ meetings, noting that the new Tulare County Economic Development Department led by Michael Washam, “comes to the board all the time with good news.” He added, “We should cut our funding way back and give the money to our own people.”
EDC Vice Chair Craig Vejvoda spoke during public comment in defense of the county staying involved in the EDC. He argued that the EDC has been creating “lots and lots” of jobs over the last 30 years, and has been responsible for a lot of new construction in the county. “Everybody in the county has benefitted from the Tulare County EDC,” he said.
Supervisor Steve Worthley said that when he became a supervisor 16 years ago, they were having the same conversation. He said that the board used to receive annual reports, and when the board would ask what benefit there was to the county, they would get no response. “There must be some return on our investment.”
Worthley said he’d rather give the money to Washam’s department than to the EDC. “The rate of return is not satisfactory. If it’s all or nothing, then I vote for nothing.”
Supervisor Allan Ishida said that eight years ago, when he first joined the board, the EDC was just putting out fires and that things needed to change but nothing changed, and he still doesn’t see a return on their investment.
Ishida moved that the county stop funding the EDC and Ennis seconded. The motion carried 4-1 with Vander Poel voting against.
The next morning, the EDC Board of Directors held their monthly meeting on the College of the Sequoias Tulare campus.
“The EDC will continue,” said Vejvoda before the meeting. “Our mission is too important. We’ll look at our work plan and we’ll look at our budget and we’ll move on. We’ll create jobs.”
Washam, whose small department the county is now investing its economic development dollars with was present and was asked for his input.
“I told the board yesterday, we’re not doing the work the EDC does,” he said. “Obviously there’s value in the EDC. The more you can put into economic development, the better.”
Washam described the supervisors’ vote as “a policy decision.”
Vejvoda said the EDC would look at its work plan, budget and dues structure. “The formula hasn’t been looked at for a while.” He then expressed his frustration with the discussion at the supervisors’ meeting.
“There are a number of things that were quite disappointing,” he said. “Board members said things as fact that weren’t factual. I was just kind of surprised at some of the comments I heard from intelligent people.”
“Supervisor Ishida said he laid out concerns and that nothing had changed,” said EDC Treasurer Colby Wells of The Gas Company, noting that supervisors had expressed concerns years ago about the EDC getting into areas such as education and tourism.
“We shed the tourism; we shed the welcoming center; we shed several sponsors,” said Wells. “We as an organization went through a complete metamorphosis based on what the county wanted us to do.”
“We have known that the county would be leaving for a while; that this momentum was building; and that this would happen,” said Visalia City Manager Mike Olmos. “Yesterday’s action, from the city managers’ perspective, is what we expected. We understand the county has different goals and that’s OK.
“It’s key to us is that this organization receives the state’s prospects,” he continued. “That’s important to us. We’re ready to move on and go to the next phase.”
EDC Board Member and Porterville Chamber of Commerce CEO Donnette Silva-Carter agreed with Vejvoda’s comments about the discussion that preceded the supervisors’ vote. “There were things said that were less than truthful,” she said. “I do feel that (the EDC) board has been working hard to redirect our efforts and that information is not being put out there.”
There was a consensus of opinion that the EDC would get its message out to the public. There was also a sense that the supervisors’ decision may eventually be changed.
“What I’m looking for is to rebuild the relationship to gradually get back to county participation at some point in the future,” said Watham. “On a staff level, we get along and work together all the time. Yesterday was like a band-aid coming off. Now, it’s the healing process. The board is not saying that the EDC shouldn’t exist. They’re just putting their funding elsewhere.”
EDC Board Member and Porterville Mayor Cam Hamilton expressed a different tone, saying that “the motivating factor” in the supervisors’ decision was firing someone at the EDC. “Trying to make nice-nice isn’t going to happen because of the way this came down.”
EDC President/CEO Paul Saldana said that the EDC provides emailed reports to the board of supervisors on a regular basis and has always attended board of supervisors meetings when invited, but, “for the past several years, we have not been invited. We have certainly not refused to give comments to the board of supervisors.”