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Columbia County ends economic development funding

November 15, 2018 GMT

Columbia County’s funding of the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation ended Tuesday, with neither a bang nor a whimper.

There was not a word of discussion at Tuesday’s County Board meeting before the supervisors voted, 20-3, to adopt a resolution ending the county’s funding of the economic development entity, at least through 2019.

Cheryl Fahrner, the organization’s executive director, said no one from the organization spoke on its behalf during the public hearing prior to adoption of the county’s $78 million budget, because the handwriting was already on the wall.

“I guess we knew how they feel,” she said.

But what was surprising, Fahrner said, were the votes in favor of ending the funding from both of the County Board representatives on the economic development entity’s board – supervisors Adam Field of Portage and Nancy Long of Lodi.

Long, who was recently appointed to the board that oversees the organization – a board composed mostly of business and community representatives – said she voted as she did partly because she has noticed widespread lack of interest in the organization’s work.

“Since I’ve been on the CCEDC board, I’ve seen less enthusiasm, less priority,” she said. “If it’s important to people, I think they need to get in there and participate.”

The supervisors who voted against the resolution are Gary Leatherberry of the town of Dekorra, Mark Sleger of the town of Lowville and Tim Zander of the town of Dekorra.

Five of the 28 supervisors – Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena, Harlan Baumgartner of the town of Otsego, John Stevenson of the town of Arlington, Jon Plumer of the town of Lodi and Brandon Blair of Columbus – were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

The economic development corporation’s bylaws require that three County Board members be appointed to its board and its executive committee, but County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage has yet to appoint a successor to replace former supervisor Andy Ross of Poynette, who resigned from the County Board in August.

The resolution to end the organization’s funding noted that the County Board created the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation in 1991, but in 1998, adopted a resolution clarifying that the county’s annual contribution to the organization would not exceed the amount contributed by participating communities.

That changed in 2013, when many Columbia County communities either opted out of funding the organization entirely, or contributed less than their population-based allotment. That’s when Columbia County became the sole source of funding — $121,700 this year, plus an additional $10,000 earmarked for tourism promotion.

Fahrner said she understands why the county took up the slack from the communities, and why that is no longer possible.

Starting in 2014, the resolution said, Columbia County has had to dip into reserves to balance its budget. For the 2019 budget that the supervisors adopted Tuesday, the amount of general fund reserves needed to make up for the shortfall in revenues is a little more than $1.5 million.

Long said she understands this decision, since the economic development group is not a county department.

However, she said she hopes supervisors will consider, next month, restoring at least some funding in 2019 for tourism-related activities.

Gove has said, however, that tourism funding would not be directed to the Columbia County Economic Development Corp., but rather, it would go to some entity with direct county oversight.

This won’t stop the economic development organization’s tourism-related activities planned for next year, including advertising in publications like “Our Wisconsin,” and an awards banquet in March, Fahrner said.

The organization has sufficient financial reserves to operate in 2019, Fahrner said. Also, she is reaching out to businesses and communities for financial help.

No one has committed any money to the organization for 2019, she said, but the most likely targets for solicited help are businesses that have benefited from the entity’s programs, including its revolving loan fund.

Also, the organization needs a new home.

The resolution requires vacating the offices on the second floor of the Administration Building, 112 E. Edgewater St., by Jan. 1. Fahrner said she has long thought those quarters lacked the visibility she thinks the organization needs.

No new location has been chosen, she said, but one possibility is the Portage Enterprise Center, 1800 Kutzke Road, where the county economic development entity had office space for many years.

“I know the communities and businesses know the importance of economic development in this county – and we are going to do just that,” Fahrner said.