Panel restores HSMP funding
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.