Officials express concerns over task force proposals
Wood County commissioners and local officials addressed their concerns about proposed changes to the Wood County Industrial Commission (WCIC) at a May 31 workshop session.
A blue ribbon taskforce appointed by Wood County Judge Lucy Hebron has recommended changing the name of WCIC, reducing the size of its board and eliminating payments for cities that have provided the commission with financial support.
Hebron appointed to the taskforce BTH Bank Vice Chairman Troy Robinson, WCIC board member Neal Duncan, Winnsboro City Administrator Craig Lindholm, former Mineola Chamber of Commerce President Vic Savelli, Mineola Mayor Kevin White and Precinct 3 Commissioner Mike Simmons. Robinson serves as the taskforce’s chairman.
WCIC is tasked with business retention and expansion as well as bringing in new businesses to unincorporated communities of Wood County. WCIC also is charged with promoting tourism throughout the area.
One of the first topics was the removal of cities’ financial contributions.
As it stands, cities in Wood County pay a fee based on population, which goes toward the WCIC executive director’s salary. For each resident, a city pays $1.57. For fiscal year 2018-19, Alba paid in $1,000; Hawkins, $2,006; Quitman, $3,187; Winnsboro, $5,391; Yantis, $609; and Mineola, $7,089.
Robinson explained that since WCIC is a county organization it should be funded entirely through the county.
Simmons added that the committee wanted to remove the notion that one community might have more power over another because of higher payments. “We actually wanted it to be considered that everybody is working for the county as a whole and not their own,” Simmons said.
Wood County Auditor Terri Sellars noted that the county contributes funds for the salary in addition to the cities. The county antes up $25,000 toward the executive director position. The county would have to budget more for the salary to compensate for loss in revenue from the municipalities, Sellars said.
Other funds that go toward WCIC are the unclaimed capital credits (UCC) funds from the Wood County Electric Cooperative, which are distributed by the state comptroller. Since about 2016, UCC funds have been distributed as grants to assist local businesses for economic development and tourism.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Jerry Gaskill suggested using local Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) and UCC funds for the WCIC executive director salary.
The Wood County tax office collects the county portion of hotel taxes in the unincorporated areas, and the WCIC decides where to direct the funds.
HOT funds must be used for marketing and tourism purposes to promote heads in beds, which could fall under the category of compensation for the WCIC executive director.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Virgil Holland explained his concern about Lake Fork area businesses being hurt if HOT funds were used for a salary. A significant amount of HOT funds originate from Lake Fork events.
“The problem I have with the HOT tax is y’all want to use it for a salary instead of supporting the businesses around Lake Fork and other businesses,” Holland said. “But what are we going to do when people quit coming?”
Sellars noted there would be a significant amount of HOT funds remaining even if they were used for a salary, and there would still be UCC monies to fund projects.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Russell Acker also recommended the taskforce look into the Tyler Economic Development Corp., which gets its funding through donations as a nonprofit organization.
Another point of concern was the taskforce’s suggestion to change the size and makeup of the WCIC board.
The taskforce recommends reducing the board from 21 members to seven. In addition, it suggests the seven members should be city economic development professionals or people with similar experience.
Robinson stated that WCIC board members should have experience in economic growth. He said economic development professionals are now prohibited from being on the board.
“It ought to be made up of those individuals that have experience and training in this sort of endeavor,” he said. “So we think we should leverage that. In that way, the cities would be already participating by providing (expertise).”
According to present WCIC bylaws, elected officials are not eligible to sit on the board but can act as advisors. The bylaws don’t mention city employees being prohibited to serve on the board.
Acker addressed the need to also have voting board members from areas outside of city limits.
“It’s almost like saying we want the cities to vote on everything,” Acker said. “We don’t want to pay any money, but we’re going to run the county. It’s like you want your cake and eat it too.”
`Robinson replied that the proposed change was intended to add more expertise in economic development.
“What we were really trying to do, Commissioner, was get (people) involved that have trained in these areas that could hopefully provide very good insight into what is already going on and what is being worked on in that city and it could provide a place for them to do collaborative work for the county,” Robinson said. “It may appear to be that we have the cities voting, but that’s not the way we want to do that.”
Membership would continue to be appointed by the mayors and then approved by the county judge, under the taskforce’s recommendation. The board would have at-large representation since there are not seven economic development professionals in the county and some might not want to serve, Robinson stated.
Acker noted that the WCIC Board of Directors attempted to reduce the board size prior to the taskforce’s formation.
According to WCIC bylaws, membership on the board consists of representatives from Alba, Hawkins, Mineola, Quitman, Winnsboro, and Yantis, as well as at-large representatives. City mayors appoint three representatives for their towns. The Wood County judge appoints one member from Golden and up to two from Holly Lake Ranch. Jarvis Christian College may appoint up to two representatives to the board.
In December, the WCIC Board of Directors recommended reducing the membership when amending bylaws. That recommendation would have given each city two board members plus one each for Jarvis, Golden and Holly Lake Ranch.
County commissioners tabled the recommendation on Dec. 14, and the matter has not been raised since.
“So there was an opportunity to reduce a number that you had. To have less voting members, so they could receive a quorum to vote on things,” Acker said.
Duncan said the membership change by the WCIC board was tabled in consideration of the taskforce. Having seven board members was taken from the local government code concerning a county industrial commission. However, the board could increase in size if necessary, Duncan noted.
WCIC Executive Director Kiki Bettis explained the rationale for reducing the current 21-member board to 15. Seven members could focus on economic development, and the others could focus on tourism. The idea was to see how that flowed, and then look at reducing board membership later if the need arose.
Changes to membership could be done through amending bylaws, Hebron said. Acker suggested working with the existing board to change bylaws and board size.
Seeing the need for industry, Acker said having one group for tourism and another for industry might be beneficial.
In response, Savelli said a “higher level group of people” with experience is missing to move the county in the right direction.
White added by saying the seven members would work toward creating economic plans, while other members would focus on tourism.
“They can meet during the day on the clock, that way we do not worry about volunteers giving up their evenings. The distribution of HOT funds and things like that, the tourism board we talked about would be that,” White said. “The seven people voting would more or less be the people working to develop economic plans, which it already says in the charter and interlocal agreement. Having those people write the plan would be better for those cities as far as participation.”
Mercy Rushing, Mineola city administrator and Mineola Economic Development Corp. executive director, added her input into the conversation as a founding member of WCIC. She explained the original purpose as a county marketing arm.
On the membership, she said it becomes difficult to have a consensus with 21 members.
“You should always have enough people to do what you need to do,” Rushing said. “I think that 80 percent of what you do is marketing and should be, and you do very little economic development. And that’s okay if you have economic development from everywhere else; however, your title is misleading.”
Also sharing his concerns, Michael Rogge, Lake Fork Chamber of Commerce president, thought changes to WCIC should be handled from within the body.
“It shouldn’t be another bureaucratic type of organization to replace what we already have in place. It was stated that they tried to police themselves by reducing the board, which I thought was a great idea,” Rogge said. Some communities, however, rejected that approach “because they put more money into it than anybody else, so they thought they ought to have more representation,” he added.
He noted that Lake Fork is an economic engine that has made Wood County what it is today through its tourism impact.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but tourism is one of the biggest industries in the country. I don’t care if it’s Wood County or the United States,” Rogge said. “It’s one of the biggest industries in the country. That is where Wood County makes 95 percent of its money.”
Martha Scroggins, a 10-year WCIC representative for Quitman, added that rules on membership regarding city employees were changed to avoid conflicts of interest between the communities in the county.
Hebron then suggested to Rogge that the WCIC board meet to go over its bylaws to revise membership size and requirements.
“I would submit to you that possibly the organization needs to sit back down at its usual meetings and look at their bylaws, take a look at this (taskforce report),” she said. “Go back to what the original intent was that Mercy told us about and really think about how you are going to make this better. I would encourage them to come back to the commissioners’ court and maybe re-urge or ask for approval of some new bylaws, whatever the consensus is they reach. Because that’s really an internal governance issue that group needs to do in consideration with all their members, executive director and president.”