Cut HCDC Budget to Bare Bones
Reality is beginning to set in with the members of the Harrison County Development Commission that big changes are coming to the troubled agency with reforms that could take months to put into place.
In a special budget hearing Thursday, Sept. 23, before the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, tensions were high between the board and with HCDC members present, but the meeting went without the usual fireworks of personalities.
It became clear during the meeting that the HCDC is rudderless, having lost its director, deputy director and marketing director since July. HCDC’s president, Elmer Williams, could not answer many of the questions regarding line items in the budget that were asked by the supervisors.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Williams told the supervisors. Williams is a volunteer and serves by appointment as also the other members of the HCDC board of directors, and does not work full-time at the HCDC. Williams is a bank officer with BancorpSouth at a branch in Ocean Springs.
By the afternoon, the supervisors chopped the HCDC's capital projects budget, from $4.3 million to $386,400, and reduced the HCDC's administration budget request of $1.6 million by a fourth, to just over $1.2 million or around $400,000. Cuts were also made in other HCDC budget items. The resulting budget reflects only basic operating needs until a new director is hired and new direction is established.
The supervisors also want to wait for the results of performance and compliance audits to see what is really needed for the agency, which has been the focus of reforms by both public and private citizens over the last several years.
"We have to take a real hard look at what works. Is it quality of life or tax incentives?" said District 5 Supervisor Connie Rockco, in a GCN interview Thursday evening.
"Investing in education and infrastructure should be our priorities for economic development," Rockco said.
During the meeting Thursday, Supervisors questioned HCDC spending on a variety of activities. Supervisor Larry Benefield questioned subsidies for the Biloxi Business Incubator on Popps Ferry Road. The proposed budget had an item for two more business incubators when the current facility is operating at only half its occupancy. The Biloxi Business Incubator provides assistance and office space for start-up businesses. Supervisors did approve extending a contract funding the existing incubator
Supervisors also were concerned over the costs of rent the HCDC pays for its offices in the Hancock Bank tower in Gulfport.
On hand for the meeting was the consultant hired by the HCDC and the county who is tasked to find a new director. His presentation acknowledged that it may be difficult to find a replacement while the HCDC is in disarray.
“We don’t have trust right now with the development commission in working with the Board of Supervisors,” said John M. Lovorn, of The Pace Group. He added later that “There have been some miscommunications and misjudgments,” in the past between the supervisors and the HCDC, but he urged everyone to move toward the future.
Lovorn recommends a five member blue ribbon panel be established to help define the role of the new director and set a course for the HCDC. He also recommended that all the commissioners with the HCDC sign conflict of interest notices and that the new director not be allowed to accept outside work or payments, which was a key criticism of the HCDC’s former director.
The supervisors took no action regarding Lovorn's recommendations at this point, but additional meetings will certainly be held.
What is clear from the meeting is that the HCDC and the Harrison County Board of Supervisors have a steep hill to climb to re-organize the agency, which has been criticized for being ineffective, inefficient and unresponsive to the public.
Said Rockco, "Now is our opportunity to make some changes to do the right thing for the taxpayers of Harrison County."
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