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Halifax County supes aim to place IDA under new administrator

SoVaNow.com / December 24, 2018
Frustrated by a lack of success bringing new companies and jobs to Halifax County, the Board of Supervisors is calling for a meeting with the Industrial Development Authority to discuss placing it under the control of the county administrator.

The meeting, tentatively set for Jan. 3, grows out of supervisors’ frustrations with what Board chairman Dennis Witt described as “the weakness of the model we have” — a perceived absence of coordination between groups tasked with landing new industries for the county.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had in the past, and I’m going to put this on the past executive director and the one before … is lack of communication,” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis at the board’s annual planning session on Thursday. “The right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”

The complaint comes as the IDA board has suspended its search for a replacement for former Executive Director Matt Leonard, who stepped down in November. With Halifax County making the transition in February to a new county administrator, current Smyth County Assistant Administrator Scott Simpson, supervisors have indicated a desire to restructure the relationship with the IDA at the same time.

Interim County Administrator Dan Sleeper, who first suggested bringing the IDA under the new administrator’s control, said most counties, especially in rural areas, use the model of running an economic development office through county administration. Currently, supervisors appoint IDA board members, but the authority and its staff function independently.

Simpson, who was chosen in part for the Halifax job because of Smyth County’s success attracting new industries, said the IDA in his home county serves as a “secondary advisory board to the Board of Supervisors.” The county administrator sits atop the IDA hierarchy.

“There are no employees of the IDA, and it’s very similar to the way the Planning Commission operates,” said Simpson.

Sleeper emphasized that supervisors already have the authority to bring the IDA under their control, with the power to appoint and dismiss directors and fund the budget. He also suggested the current organizational structure between the IDA and Board of Supervisors has contributed to a dysfunctional relationship between the two bodies.

“The board [of supervisors] created the IDA to be a tool. The board didn’t create the IDA to go off and be an empire,” Sleeper said.

Some members suggested that the IDA’s recent moves to operate without any reliance on the county budget represent a desire to break free of board control. However, others pushed back at that notion, saying the IDA is simply seeking to avoid the use of local taxpayer dollars in response to complaints by the public that it is too expensive.

“It was a move toward fiscal independence, not a move toward independence from [supervisors],” said Garland Ricketts, ED-7.

ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne reminded fellow board members of the last time the board sought to supplant the IDA, by appointing a separate Economic Development Authority some 15 years ago. After an outcry ensued among members of the IDA, EDA appointees resigned en masse, and the idea died.

Claiborne called for a joint agreement between supervisors and IDA directors on how to move forward with a better model for economic development, and to stave off controversy like that with the IDA-EDA spat. “That’s what we want to avoid this time,” he said.

If supervisors place the IDA under the new administrator’s control, added Davis, his office is likely to need additional staff to oversee industrial sites, business parks and other assets that are held by the authority. Those new employees could come from the ranks of existing IDA staff.

However, the next executive director of the IDA or equivalent will be a new hire, and Sleeper said it was important to get someone who can effectively pitch Halifax County to economic development prospects — and won’t be too expensive to hire.

“One thing you have to be careful about is paying a director,” said Sleeper, noting that many IDA heads earn salaries in the low six-figures. “They’re more [costly] than that in some areas, because [good ones] are hard to get.”

Nodding to his background in Danville and Pittsylvania County — Sleeper most recently was Pittsylvania’s county administrator before coming to Halifax — the interim administrator acknowledged that “there’s no question” Halifax’s western neighbors “have had a lot of success” attracting new industries.

He credited the ability of Danville and Pittsylvania officials to work seamlessly together — aided by their joint chamber of commerce and regional development authorities.

“We have to remember what this discussion is — what is the most effective economic development [model] going forward,” said Board chairman Witt.

Listening in on the supervisors’ discussion during the planning session was Nancy Pool, former chamber director and a member of the IDA board. She urged supervisors to meet as soon as possible with the IDA to work out any organizational changes. Pool noted the importance of the first of the year to economic development, and said that if a restructuring is in the offing, she and other IDA board members need to know as soon as possible so they can adapt.

Pool also told supervisors that she would take the Jan. 3 proposed meeting date back to her board to see if the meeting can be arranged.



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Comments

The IDA should not comeunder the County Commissioner since we have enough closed door meetings of the public busiess conducted in secrecy. We need more oversight of what is occuring not less. Wake up Sleeper!

Comments

I have to agree with the Board on this one. For too long the IDA has wastefully spent taxpayer dollars with no regard and have resulted in very little successes. Most oversight is needed for sure and I am glad the County is listening to the wisdom of Mr. Sleeper. We keep seeing successes in Danville and Pittsylvania County so it seems very prudent to use their economic development model as our own. I hope this does come to pass so that Halifax County can attract jobs! I will throw out an ideal candidate for the new COUNTY IDA director, none other than Bill Confroy. (If he would accept the position).

Comments

If you think the current situation with the IDA is not ideal, look into the nightmare going on in Warren County, VA currently. Local journalists asked some hard questions about the organization's activity over the last two years and broke the story that the IDA/EDA had overcharged the town over $290K in debt servicing payments. The Director resigned earlier this month after being shown evidence by the board. The county is now looking at its finances involving projects with the entity. Oversight is critical!


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