Lawrence Chamber of Commerce officials confirmed Friday that they've received nearly $700,000 in pledges from individuals and businesses as part of a three-year capital campaign to boost economic development efforts in the community.
Now, a city/county appointed economic development board is urging the chamber to provide more details about how that money — plus about $400,000 a year in tax payer money — will be spent.
"I get a significant number of questions from the public about funding for this organization, and I should because it is a significant amount," said City Commissioner Bob Schumm, who is a member of the Joint Economic Development Council.
Chamber officials said they soon would be preparing a more detailed budget of their spending plans to present to both the private contributors and to city and county officials.
But on Friday, chamber executives did not have details on several numbers related to a draft budget they had prepared for 2015. Specifically, members of the economic development board wanted more details about a line item that included slightly more than $235,000 for overhead expenses. Board members said they wanted to be assured those overhead expenses only were going to support the economic development activities of the chamber, not the other functions of the chamber that involve supporting the paid membership of the chamber.
"We need to see this in more transparent terms to assure the public that these are good investments," Schumm said.
Chamber executives said they would provide a more detailed breakdown of the overhead expenses in the near future and said there are discussions underway about creating a new system of accounting for the taxpayer funds.
Currently that money — which has averaged about $400,000 for the past several years — goes into the chamber's general account and then is kept track of through a line-item system in the chamber's budget. Mike McGrew, the chair of the chamber's board of directors, said the group is considering creating a separate checking account for the economic development money received from the city and the county.
Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who is a member of the economic development board, said he wanted to explore such separation.
"We need to decide whether this is the chamber's economic development budget or whether this is the Lawrence-Douglas County economic development budget," Gaughan said. "I think it is our budget. I think we need to stop think about this as the chamber's request for funding."
Economic development board members said they were pleased that the chamber had successfully raised private money for economic development efforts. Based on the pledges, the chamber expects private giving for economic development programs to average $233,000 a year for the next three years. That's up from about $95,000 the chamber received in pledges in 2013. The additional money will allow for increased funding for business retention, expansion and workforce development programs, but chamber leaders didn't have details on those programs Friday.
The chamber is currently without a CEO and president after Greg Williams resigned earlier this year.
At Friday's meeting, the economic development board agreed to forward the chamber's 2015 budget request to the city and county commissions for further consideration. The proposed budget seeks $200,000 from each the city and the county, which is the same amount that was funded in 2014.
Although not discussed at Friday's meeting, the written funding request the chamber is submitting to Douglas County urges county commissioners to discuss the possibility of a dedicated sales tax that would support economic development efforts.
"It is time to take an economic development sales tax initiative into serious consideration if the community wants to compete with its metropolitan neighbors in Topeka and Kansas City," the budget request states.
After the meeting, McGrew said he did not think the chamber would make a strong push for elected officials to consider a new sales tax in the near term, but said it is a conversation the community should have in the future.
"When we compare ourselves to Topeka and Johnson County, we are far behind the amount of resources they bring to bear on economic development," McGrew said. "But the first thing that needed to happen is that the chamber needed to get its house in order, and I think we are doing that."