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Palm Coast Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 4 months ago

County Commission disbands Department of Economic Opportunity, Economic Opportunity Advisory Council

The 3-1 vote came after Commissioner Donald O'Brien voiced concerns about inefficiencies in the department.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

County commissioners voted 3-1 on Jan. 13 to disband the county's Department of Economic Opportunity and Economic Opportunity Advisory Council, and to replace the department with a single employee who will coordinate economic development.

Commissioner Greg Hansen was the sole vote against the proposal, calling it rushed. Commissioner Charlie Ericksen — the only member of the commission who was on the board in 2011, when the Department of Economic Opportunity and Economic Opportunity Advisory Council were formed — was absent. 

"I don't take any glee whatsoever in my motion, and I understand careers and people’s lives are affected. But I will not shirk my responsibility as a commissioner with respect to efficient use of taxpayer dollars and us getting the best results."


— DONALD O'BRIEN, Flagler County Commissioner

The decision came after County Commissioner Donald O'Brien, reading a prepared statement at the end of the meeting, said he believed it was time to restructure the county's Department of Economic Opportunity, which he said costs more than neighboring counties' while having a "continuing lack of any significant result."

"I’m convinced we need to simplify our economic development  process," he said. "We should just have one person on staff that is responsible for economic activities."

The department's budget is over $500,000, he noted, while St. Johns County's — which has a population of over 243,000 people, much more than Flagler's approximately 110,000 — is spending about $443,000, and Clay County, with a population of about 212,000, spends about $220,000.

"I think we have a problem of a lack of accountability," O'Brien said, noting that the position of the department's director, Helga van Eckert, was specifically created by the County Commission in 2011 with a provision that the director work with autonomy from the county administrator. "We have no other situation like that within county government," O'Brien said.

As for the advisory council, it struggles to get enough members to function, he said. O'Brien is the commission's representative on that council.

O'Brien added he wasn't saying there had not been effort, or that the county didn't have good staff members. But, he said, "We can be a hell of a lot more efficient than we’ve been in the past."

His comments followed a presentation by van Eckert in which she'd touted her department's ability to bring jobs into the area and stated that the department was responsible for creating 500 jobs. 

But O'Brien said that such reports were “replete with with questionable and fluffy numbers,” and that the department often took credit for projects which it had little involvement with. Of the claim of 500 jobs, he said, "Where’s the backup and the documentation?"

He made a motion to defund the economic development department and reduce the budget down to one full-time person; discontinue the advisory council; direct the county administrator to assign economic development staff — aside from van Eckert, there are two other full-time employees, plus a part-time employee — to other departments the county, where appropriate; assign one staff member to an economic development support position; and reduce the budget to support that one position while continuing to honor economic development incentives that county had already granted. 

"I don't take any glee whatsoever in my motion, and I understand careers and people’s lives are affected," O'Brien said. "But I will not shirk my responsibility as a commissioner with respect to efficient use of taxpayer dollars and us getting the best results."

Of several issues that O'Brien listed as missteps on the part of the department — for instance, the last-minute collapse of a deal to bring a furniture company into the county, the county's inability to fill a spec building that had been constructed on U.S.1, and the fact that the department had not created economic opportunity zones — Commissioner Joe Mullins said he'd had similar concerns. 

"I don’t think that it’s one person’s fault; I can’t put that on our director," Mullins said. But, he added, "I think it is crucial that we change the image and reputation of this community. … I am so concerned that if we see a dip … Flagler County’s going to go back to the highest unemployment rate in the state of Florida." 

Hansen said he would be willing to look into the issues O'Brien raised. But he wasn't ready to vote to shut down the department and the council without more investigation. "We shouldn’t rush into things, and this is rushing into things," Hansen said. 

Speaking after the meeting, Commissioner David Sullivan said that he'd voted in favor of O'Brien's motion based on the information presented. And in business — which the county, with its staff, essentially is, he said — once it appears that a person with a position as high as director isn't going to be continued, it's best to make the move quickly to avoid recrimination or other complications in the interim.

County Administrator Jerry Cameron said he will reassign the department's other employees to other positions, without impacting their pay. 

"We’re running short-staffed anyway, on purpose, with other budget constraints," he said. 

The economic development activities currently being handled by the department, he said, will be handed off to the person he selects to become the county's economic development point person. 

"Although I hate it — I love the individuals here, and I love the employees — it’s exciting to know we’re starting a new day," Mullins said.




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