Lawrence and Douglas County officials are asking some valid questions about how the community’s economic development dollars are being spent.
For many years, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has been the lead agency for the local economic development program. However, in 2012, the Joint Economic Development Council was formed “to provide general oversight and vision of the economic development efforts” in the city and county. The 12-member council is appointed by the city, county and chamber and includes a representative from Kansas University and one from the Bioscience and Technology Business Center.
During a recent meeting of the council, chamber officials announced they had raised an impressive $700,000 in pledges from individuals and businesses to support local economic development efforts over the next three years. That’s a significant contribution but still well below the combined contribution of city and county government of about $400,000 each year.
For that reason, city and county representatives on the council expressed the desire to receive a more exact accounting of how the chamber was spending economic development dollars. They wanted, for example, a more specific breakdown of a line item that identified slightly more than $235,000 for overhead expenses, to make sure all of that money was used to support economic development efforts and not other services provided to chamber members.
The chamber currently accounts for city-county economic development funds as a separate line in the its budget, but chamber officials said they were considering creating a separate bank account for the public funds. That would respond to city-county concerns and provide easy accountability to the public about how taxpayer money is spent.
Even with the chamber’s increased monetary commitment, local economic development activities have become more of a team effort. That will become even more obvious if county officials pick up on feelers being put out by the chamber about the possibility of a sales tax dedicated to economic development.
With all the other financial obligations facing local taxpayers right now, an additional sales tax likely would be a hard sell. Nonetheless, local residents — including many who opposed certain economic development efforts in the past — understand the need to provide more local jobs and build the local tax base.
The chamber is in a period of transition, seeking a new CEO and perhaps some restructuring of its economic development staff. Although the chamber probably will retain its point position on economic development, city and county officials are right to call for greater oversight and accountability of the public money used for that purpose.