Members of the Wood County Industrial Commission (WCIC) Board of Directors expressed concerns last week that misinformation is circulating in regard to how WCIC money is allocated throughout the county.
Those concerns and others were raised at a March 7 meeting in the wake of a commissioners’ court workshop that tackled the special task force appointed for the purpose of examining the WCIC. At the March 1 workshop, Wood County commissioners discussed the task force, which is charged with recommending ways to improve the WCIC. Commissioners have yet to take action on a resolution authorizing the task force.
On Jan. 11, newly elected County Judge Lucy Hebron announced plans to create the task force. A resolution authorizing the task force was tabled by commissioners on Feb. 22, and no action has been taken since.
According to a letter from Troy Robinson, who Hebron appointed as chairman of the task force, the goal of the panel is “to review the effectiveness and structure of WCIC for all citizens of Wood County.” No such review has been done since WCIC’s inception, he claimed. Robinson further states that the goal is crucial because Mineola and Winnsboro are considering withdrawing from the WCIC.
The resolution authorizing the task force was not on last week’s commissioners’ agenda.
Hebron had no comment on March 8 about when the resolution will be on the agenda.
WCIC Executive Director Kiki Bettis stated, “As far as where it (task force) stands, you know I hate to say this, but I’m stuck back in the ‘I don’t know’ stage.”
Yantis representative J.R. Simpson said at last week’s meeting that a misconception exists about where WCIC funding goes.
“They’re saying that all the money goes to Lake Fork. I’ve probably had 400 emails since all this started, text messages and Facebook,” Simpson said. “Everybody’s mad. They’re saying we send all the money to Lake Fork, and we don’t support the other communities. I’m not sure what makes them think that.”
The Industrial Commission decides where to direct Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds in unincorporated areas of Wood County in an effort to promote tourism. The Wood County tax office collects the HOT taxes. An emphasis is placed on “heads in beds” when choosing where the funds go, such as multiple-day festivals or fishing tournaments at area lakes.
“They see the total number that’s on our financials as far as HOT funds,” Bettis said. “For example, our HOT fund list, the total, and they see who it’s earmarked for and it’s Lake Fork. What they don’t understand is where that money comes from. Your city’s money goes into the general fund, not the hotel-motel fund. So they’re talking oranges and apples.”
Hotel tax funds within the incorporated areas go into the cities’ coffers, WCIC Chairman and Winnsboro representative Gerald Elliott said.
“Those HOT funds are heavy on the Lake Fork side because that’s where the money comes from. Winnsboro got money for the arts association, the Autumn Trails got money and they each have received money equivalent to the amount or more to the amount of money they contributed,” Elliott said. “No city ever lacked at least getting back the money they contributed. Some years they get more and some years they get less.”
Golden representative and WCIC Vice Chairman Dana Donahue said the Lake Fork area receives funding from HOT funds to attract more future tourism. Not everyone understands the importance of plowing HOT money back into the larger bids, which draw the most visitors to Wood County. The cities may not understand that calculation.
WCIC funding comes from HOT taxes as well from cities that contribute a sum based on population. In addition, the WCIC receives unclaimed capital credits (UCC) from 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.
Bettis says she has provided information on WCIC when asked and is willing to answer questions.
“I’m just waiting for my turn to speak. I’ve provided this organization and others, upon request, that information,” Bettis said. “Y’all are obviously in the know of that information. It is public record and it is transparent.”
Quitman representative Sam Scroggins suggested giving the WCIC membership information about the industrial commission so they can accurately describe how funding works.
“I think we need to do something to get everybody in this commission armed with information,” Scroggins said. “I mean I’ve tried to rack my brain about how we’ve divided up all the UCC funds because every community got some share of those based on what they requested and based on unanimous, if not almost unanimous, votes of the commission.”
Some board members speculated that the cause of opposition to WCIC is linked to the Wood County Airport receiving $50,000 in UCC funds in 2017-18 to assist with its expansion project. Meanwhile, the Sanderson Farms project in Mineola did not receive UCC funds.
Presentations on the airport and Sanderson Farms were heard by the UCC funds sub-committee, which recommended giving funding to the airport. The recommendation was accepted by the WCIC board. Previously, local businesses and organizations applied for UCC funds for various grants for economic development, including renovations, expansion, literacy programs, etc.
“It seems to me this whole stink arose because last year we chose not to support the small businesses with UCC funds. Instead we had a choice between the airport and Sanderson Farms, and we chose the airport unanimously,” Scroggins said.
Chairman Gerald Elliott agreed with the airport funding.
“… We believed it better to give UCC money to the airport as opposed to Sanderson Farms. (Mineola City Manager) Mercy (Rushing) had told us they (City of Mineola and Sanderson Farms) were going to do that whether we participated or not. They had their ducks in a row. This was going to help them, but they still saw their way to do it with or without our help. But the airport needed our money to help get started,” Elliott said. “Consequently, we made a unanimous decision to help the airport do their feasibility study, so that money was given, that money was spent, and hopefully before much longer the airport will be extending. We saw the importance of that as far as countywide economic development, and that they need a place where jets can land.”
Donahue stated that the decision to fund the airport instead of contributing to the Sanderson Farms project wasn’t about a lack of support.
“It was a shame that Sanderson Farms project didn’t get anything; I mean that was something that needed to be funded. It wasn’t that we didn’t support the project,” she said. “We just didn’t have the money.”
Elliott explained how he was invited to the Winnsboro City Council in February to answer questions about the WCIC.
“I made a statement very specifically to the City Council, and you might be asked to do that as well to your representative organizations,” Elliott told fellow WCIC board members. “UCC funds went somewhat equally into all the cities because those monies were the unclaimed capital credits that were for economic development, and those were given to businesses that made the request.”
Since Elliott met with the Winnsboro City Council, they’ve been appreciative of him providing information on funding, he said.
Scroggins added that representatives should have similar conversations with their cities.
“All I’m asking for is talking points to help us get through the story you told your City Council,” Scroggins said. “We all had the same set of facts. I think that could be very beneficial.”
Bettis said the commission will continue its normal operations.
“Regardless, we need to continue doing business as usual with an emphasis on progressing this organization and county,” she said. “Great start with board training and hopefully next step will be some type of comprehensive or strategic planning.”