Panel re­stores HSMP fund­ing

The Sentinel-Record - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID SHOW­ERS

The non­profit cor­po­ra­tion Gar­land County con­tracts for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ser­vices told jus­tices of the peace ear­lier this week it’s been tasked with re­solv­ing a long-sim­mer­ing in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal dis­pute over which it has lit­tle in­flu­ence.

That lack of agency led the Gar­land County Quo­rum Court Fi­nance Com­mit­tee to re­duce the Hot Springs Metro Part­ner­ship’s 2019 ap­pro­pri­a­tion last month, but the amended bud­get rec­om­men­da­tion the com­mit­tee ad­vanced Mon­day night to the full quo­rum court re­stored The Greater Hot Springs Cham­ber of Com­merce-af­fil­i­ated or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fund­ing to the $75,000 it has re­ceived in re­cent years.

The Fi­nance Com­mit­tee had re­duced the ap­pro­pri­a­tion to $50,000.

The county said it has a con­tract for ser­vices with the part­ner­ship but was unaware if a bind­ing agree­ment de­tail­ing the scope of ser­vices the part­ner­ship is ob­li­gated to pro­vide ac­com­pa­nied it. The county court or­der from De­cem­ber that ex­tended the ap­pro­pri­a­tion through this year stip­u­lated the part­ner­ship would pro­vide eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment

ser­vices but didn’t enu­mer­ate what that ser­vice en­tails.

Hot Springs’ $100,000 con­tract for ser­vices with the part­ner­ship in­cludes a writ­ten agree­ment de­tail­ing more than 20 obli­ga­tions the group is ex­pected to meet.

Cham­ber and HSMP CEO/Pres­i­dent Gary Trout­man told JPs Mon­day that the pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship was re­spon­sive to county con­cerns about the city of Hot Springs’ util­ity ex­ten­sion and con­nec­tion pol­icy that lim­its wa­ter and sewer ac­cess in the un­in­cor­po­rated area.

County of­fi­cials main­tain the pol­icy has hin­dered growth out­side the city, de­priv­ing prop­erty own­ers who’ve paid to ex­tend wa­ter and sewer in­fra­struc­ture of the right to use it. The Fi­nance Com­mit­tee told Trout­man in May that pay­ing the part­ner­ship to fa­cil­i­tate eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment didn’t make sense in light of lim­i­ta­tions on util­ity ser­vice out­side the city.

The part­ner­ship re­sponded by or­ga­niz­ing a meet­ing the fol­low­ing month be­tween county and city of­fi­cials that was also at­tended by mem­bers of the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

“We were given a di­rec­tive in May to do what we can,” Trout­man told JPs Mon­day night. “I thought we had a very hon­est, forth­right con­ver­sa­tion. I thought we left with a very good work­ing agree­ment. We were charged with set­ting up a meet­ing. We set that meet­ing up, and we stood back.”

Trout­man said the city ap­proved all com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial ap­pli­ca­tions for util­ity con­nec­tions out­side the city last month, but the county has ar­gued the city’s pol­icy dis­suades peo­ple from ap­ply­ing for ser­vice.

“Some aren’t get­ting to the point of get­ting turned down,” District 12 JP and County Judge­elect Dar­ryl Ma­honey told Trout­man. “We’re a gov­ern­ment funded by sales tax. We de­pend on that growth. We need to con­tinue to strive to re­move the ob­sta­cle that causes the per­cep­tion that you can’t get wa­ter even if you ask.”

Trout­man ques­tioned if the pol­icy has de­terred growth out­side the city to the ex­tent that JPs have ar­gued, given that un­in­cor­po­rated area man­u­fac­tur­ers had added or an­nounced the ad­di­tion of al­most 200 jobs in the last year. County Judge Rick Davis said busi­ness ex­pan­sion is only one di­men­sion of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, ex­plain­ing that it’s also a func­tion of prop­erty de­vel­op­ment.

“There are jobs at stake when you can’t de­velop prop­erty,” he told Trout­man. “I don’t care if it’s plumb­ing sup­plies or what­ever it is. It’s cost­ing peo­ple jobs and re­ally hurt­ing sales tax rev­enue for the city and county. This is a mess.”

District 9 JP Matt McKee, the chair­man of the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, ques­tioned the part­ner­ship’s abil­ity to rep­re­sent the county’s in­ter­ests as they re­late to the city when the part­ner­ship de­pends on the city for fund­ing. He sug­gested re­duc­ing the county’s con­tri­bu­tion to the level of the part­ner­ship’s pri­vate mem­bers.

“For us to be such a huge stake­holder and for you to be so re­liant on tax­payer money is not a good thing,” McKee told Trout­man. “It’s not healthy for you, and it’s not healthy for us. You’re caught in the mid­dle of some­thing, be­cause you have two or­ga­ni­za­tions that you re­ceive fund­ing from and you’re try­ing to me­di­ate a dis­pute.”

Trout­man said it’s com­mon for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to fund eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in ar­eas with­out a fund­ing source ded­i­cated to grow­ing the econ­omy. Re­duc­ing pub­lic in­vest­ment in the part­ner­ship would put the county at a dis­ad­van­tage to other ar­eas in the re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion of busi­ness, he said, and foster a per­cep­tion that the county doesn’t sup­port eco­nomic growth.

“It sends a bad mes­sage when we’re vis­it­ing site con­sul­tants and try­ing to get them to re­lo­cate to Gar­land County and even ex­pand here,” he said.

McKee re­sponded that the city’s util­ity pol­icy also dis­suaded re­cruit­ment.

“It sends a hor­ri­ble mes­sage to those places when they can’t get wa­ter,” he said. “If you’re say­ing with your help they can get wa­ter, then that’s an even worse mes­sage.”

Trout­man said eval­u­at­ing the part­ner­ship solely on its abil­ity to rep­re­sent the county’s in­ter­ests as they re­late to wa­ter and sewer pol­icy di­min­ishes the progress it’s made on other ini­tia­tives such as work­force de­vel­op­ment and broad­band in­ter­net avail­abil­ity. He said the part­ner­ship’s work on the lat­ter should pay div­i­dends soon, telling JPs he ex­pects broad­band to be avail­able by the sum­mer.

“I know (util­ity pol­icy) is a pas­sion­ate topic, but it’s one lit­tle mi­cro­cosm of what we do,” he said.

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