Douglas County leaders’ questions on economic development funding requests might not be resolved anytime soon

photo by: Matt Resnick | Journal-World

Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Reid speaks about a funding request for the 2024 budget at the commission's meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023.

Despite being part of Douglas County’s tentative 2024 budget, two economic development funding requests are still raising questions and skepticism from county leaders — and those might not be resolved until long after the budget itself is approved.

At the County Commission’s meeting Wednesday, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky wanted to get clarification from commissioners about more than $100,000 in funding requested by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and its associated Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County.

Most of that money — up to $105,000 — would be set aside for the Chamber and EDC’s Revolving Loan Fund, an initiative that supports minority business owners who are just starting out. But in order for the money to be disbursed, the Chamber and EDC would have to raise funds from private donors first, and then the county would match the funding they raised.

Plinsky wanted more details on how the matching funds would work and what conditions the Chamber needed to meet in order to receive them. And commissioners wanted more details, too — both about the nature of the private donors and about how the loan program itself works.

“I will feel better about this funding when I have a clear understanding of the Chamber and EDC’s investment in the fund, along with (the financial commitment) of community partners,” Commissioner Shannon Reid said. She wanted to see “some utilization and some action in the program before committing funding to it.”

Commissioner Patrick Kelly, meanwhile, had concerns about the other part of the Chamber and EDC request — $30,000 that the Chamber sought for “operational support.”

In paperwork it submitted during the county’s budget process earlier this summer, the Chamber said it was seeking that money because its funding was cut by $25,000 in 2019; the extra $5,000 was to account for inflation. It also said that money would be critical as the Chamber prepares for the arrival of the $4 billion Panasonic battery plant in nearby De Soto. But Kelly said he wanted a more concrete idea of what benefits the money would bring.

“What I’m really looking for is to be able to say that for $30,000 worth of investment, this is the increase in tax base we got,” Kelly said. “This is the number of new jobs in these wages that we got.

“In my mind, economic development should clearly be an investment that has a large return,” he said.

The commissioners had questions about the Chamber and EDC requests earlier in the budget process, too, and they’d also expressed reservations about whether the county should be responsible for closing funding gaps in partner agencies’ budgets that other community partners have left. On Wednesday, Plinsky and the commissioners reiterated that these questions don’t have easy answers.

“So now what I’m hearing from the commission is that they want additional information around entrepreneurship, partnerships, metrics, and data,” Plinsky told the Journal-World. “That’s why I had lots of questions, because clearly we weren’t all on the same page.”

But what was also clear on Wednesday is that they don’t need to be answered right away.

Even though the commission’s final vote on the budget is scheduled for next week, Aug. 30, Plinsky emphasized that the budget itself is for 2024, and none of the tentative funding can be released until then. In the meantime, Plinsky said she planned to do more research on the Chamber’s requests and its prospective funding sources; work on the issue with community partners; and give the commissioners a presentation at a much later date so they can make an informed decision about how to disburse the funds in 2024.

“I do that every year as part of the process,” Plinsky told the Journal-World. “I just sort of ask (commissioners) ‘now, what did we say?’ and try to get that clarity. Commissioners will then say ‘yes, we have the clarity we are looking for and we are comfortable releasing the funds.'”


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