Warren County may soon create its own department to oversee economic development.
County Administrator Edwin Daley explained to members of the Board of Supervisors at a work session on Tuesday some proposed changes that would affect the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority. A new arrangement under consideration would shift certain responsibilities to a county government department.
But supervisors need to act soon since the EDA’s executive director leaves in less than a month.
Chairwoman Cheryl L. Cullers, Vice Chairman Archie A. Fox and supervisors Walter J. Mabe and Delores R. Oates attended the work session. Supervisor Tony F. Carter did not attend the work session.
The county provides funds to the EDA, which the authority uses to cover operating costs and debt payments. The county pays for the EDA’s legal costs. The county budgeted almost $3.2 million for the EDA this fiscal year for operations, legal costs and capital or one-time spending.
“The EDA is going to be a legal entity in any event, entitled to certain things under state law,” Daley said.
The state allows the EDA to carry debt, own and develop property, issue bonds for industrial development and loan money, Daley said.
A possible reconfiguration would move the EDA’s operational costs under the county’s budget for other departmental operations expenses that cover staff salaries. The reconfiguration would bring the employees hired by the EDA Board of Directors under the county’s budget. The administration would assign the employees, unofficially, to work with the EDA, similar to how Planning Department staff work with the Planning Commission, Daley explained.
The county would still have a director of economic development on staff. That employee would, for the time being, work at the EDA office on Kendrick Lane, Daley said.
“I would like to see, at some point, the board be able to put the EDA office in the central part of downtown, something down here where it’s more visible for everyone to be able to see it and, with the buildings that the county owns around this building, it would be good to have it here in any event,” Daley said.
The EDA board of directors could meet at any location, Daley noted.
But, with the recent departure of the EDA’s Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson and Executive Director Douglas Parsons leaving in early October, Daley said now is the time to consider reconfiguring the authority’s place within the county structure. Daley added that Deputy County Administrator Taryn Logan also is in the process of hiring new employees.
Mabe described the reconfiguration as a separation of powers. Oates said she would like to see job descriptions that lay out the responsibilities of the EDA board and its director.
“Do they actually meet with prospects or is it more transparent for the director to meet with the prospects and then report back to the board and get the board’s feedback,” Oates said. “So I think that that’s what I see the EDA board doing, not actually being directly involved with our prospects.”
Daley concurred and explained that county employees, often including staff from the Planning Department, initially meet with a prospect. The EDA board becomes involved when county employees and the prospect enter more serious negotiations, Daley said.
The new arrangement would make the board of supervisors more involved in the EDA’s activities, similar to their relationship with other county departments, Daley said, in response to a question from Fox. The supervisor expressed hesitancy toward the possible arrangement.
“So we would need to make a decision whether we would want to be more involved than what we are with the EDA operations,” Fox said. “I’m not sure that would be the right way to go but it’s good for something to think about.”
Daley said there are pros and cons to the configuration. But, in response to a question from Cullers, Daley said he doesn’t see where supervisors would be involved in the day-to-day operations of an economic development department. Supervisors would have more oversight of such a department under the new arrangement, Daley said.
Much of what the EDA does remains confidential, Fox said. That would not change under the new configuration, Daley said. The economic development director would continue bringing in prospective businesses and industries and those discussions would remain confidential, Daley said. Supervisors would become involved if, for example, the prospective developer sought an incentive that called for local funding, Daley explained.
Oates asked how the configuration would affect Front Royal given that the EDA covers both the county and the town. Daley suggested that supervisors invite the Town Council to participate in a county economic development department that would work for the EDA and Front Royal.
“And I think that would be the best tax advantage for the community is if we would actually collaborate and not create independent organizations because otherwise we’re spending twice the money ... to do the same job,” Oates said. “And redundancy is exactly what it is.”
Front Royal has already created its own independent economic development authority and appointed Town Manager Steven Hicks as its director. The Town Council is in the process of appointing EDA board members.
Oates asked if the configuration would save money. Daley said that Todd Jones, director of technology, handles information technology needs for the EDA, eliminating the need for the authority to pay contractors. Should an economic development department employee have a legal question, they could ask the county’s attorney and the EDA would not need to pay for its own legal counsel as it does currently, Daley said.
The county plans to include the EDA in the annual auditing process so the authority no longer would need to pay for an independent audit, Daley said.
Cullers said the supervisors must make some decisions soon, adding that “we definitely have a lot to think about before next Tuesday because we have to have this solid for everyone.”
The EDA board is in charge of hiring an interim executive director and an administrative assistant, but the county is helping them with that process, Daley said, responding to a question from Oates.
“So we need to make this decision immediately because ... it wouldn’t be fair to a potential candidate to think they were working under one organizational structure and then be switched to another organizational structure after they were hired,” Oates said.
The county and the EDA could hire an interim executive director within 60-90 days, Daley said. The interim official may likely serve in the position for three to six months until the county hires a permanent director, he noted.