Development agency may go private

Committee to study change

Dell pushes privatizing panel

`Whole issue of funding'

Switch from public could mean more efficiency, authority

March 29, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

At the urging of Commissioner Donald I. Dell, Carroll's economic development department will consider changing its status from a public agency to a private entity that would have more direct authority, with added flexibility and efficiency.

The Economic Development Commission, which reports to the county, appointed five of its members to a committee yesterday that will study the creation of a public-private partnership.

The commissioners are here this morning and then away on other business," said Dell. "We deal with many agencies and budgets and don't have the insight into daily business or the time to give [to] economic development. Things are moving fast and changing. You all are the experts but not the authority now.

"We would be removing one step in the process, which is slow now because of the way government works," Dell said. "Businesspeople can make it work quicker. The commissioners have too much going on to be very directly involved. "

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier called privatization an interesting idea, adding that she would wait for the study before deciding its benefits.

"I am always game to hear ideas," Frazier said.

David H. Roush, plant manager at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. in Union Bridge, said the committee should study privatization in other counties before making its recommendation.

"Would a body in or out of county government be able to influence issues important to economic development such as roads and zoning in the same way?" Roush asked. "Would there be an ombudsman for the business community in county government?"

Charles I. Ecker, interim superintendent of Carroll schools, said Howard County had privatized economic development under his tenure as executive there to ensure continuity and consistency.

"As executive, I gave up the power and put the responsibility for economic development in the hands of business, not in the hands of politicians," said Ecker, who will serve on the study committee. "We know this board of Carroll commissioners is pro-economic development, but that may not be in the next administration."

The private Howard County Economic Development Authority was formed about nine years ago to "let the business community into the process in a big way," said Dick Story, chief executive officer of the authority.

"Economic development is more successful if it is removed from day-to-day politics," Story said. "We are a privatized government contractor with one client: county government. Business leaders report to our board of directors who guide and control the program."

Howard County contributes about $700,000 annually to its economic development authority, which also receives $275,000 from the private sector, said Story.

Carroll's study committee would review the financial ramifications of privatization and try to determine the business community's share of funding.

"I have serious reservations that funding would be available from the businesspeople in Carroll County," said Dr. Arthur Peck, an EDC member.

The Carroll commissioners have long made economic development a priority and have consistently increased the department's annual budget to $456,000. The department also oversees a $3 million trust fund, money that can be used to pay for infrastructure and attract industry.

Carroll has worked to increase its industrial tax base, at 12 percent the lowest of the metropolitan counties.

"The key here is the whole issue of funding," said Donni Dingman, an EDC member. "The county needs to be a major funding source. Businesses are not able to contribute at that level. We need as clear a statement as we can get as to what we would achieve with privatization."

John T. "Jack" Lyburn Jr., Carroll's economic development director, also wondered about the willingness of the business community to finance his office.

"I didn't hear business talking contributions at the table this morning," Lyburn said. "But, I will go with whatever the commission recommends."

Privatization would create the need for a new position: fund-raiser, he said.

"I didn't sign on to be a fund-raiser," Lyburn said.

Any change is at least a year away. Whatever the EDC recommends will need approval from the General Assembly in its 2003 session.

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