Cumberland County commissioners will not start hammering out the details of the county government budget until sometime in the spring or early summer, but that is not stopping Commissioner Charles Evans from taking aim at one budget item he does not like.
At every opportunity, such as a recent news radio interview, Evans expresses his displeasure with how much money the county contributes to the Fayetteville Regional Chamber of Commerce, more specifically a chamber division called the Economic Development Alliance of Fayetteville and Cumberland County.
In recent years Cumberland County's commissioners have approved giving the Alliance $410,000 annually. The money is aimed at helping the Alliance achieve its mission of helping existing businesses grow and attracting new businesses. Evans has said feels that amount is too much. He questions if the Alliance is helping create enough jobs to justify the county's funding.
"Why is it that we don't have the jobs here? The one organization that we depend on to produce is not producing," Evans said. "I think that the money the Chamber receives should be based on what they're producing, and if that was the case right now I don't think they would be receiving much."
In addition to the contribution from Cumberland County, the Alliance also receives $100,000 from the city of Fayetteville and $315,000 from the city's Public Works Commission (PWC), which operates under a separate budget. The public funding is about two-thirds of the Alliance's budget, according to the Executive Vice President Russ Rogerson.
Cumberland County contributes notably more to the Alliance than other similarly sized North Carolina counties contribute to economic development agencies. For example, Durham County most recently paid the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce $265,000 for economic development work. In the current fiscal year, Forsyth County is contributing a total of $138,021 to the local chamber of commerce and three other local agencies for economic development efforts. Like Cumberland, neither Durham nor Forsyth Counties have staff members dedicated to economic development.
"The fact that our budget from the county standpoint is different than other counties is something you'll have to address with the county," Rogerson said. "What I do know is we take that money and we try to use that money as best and as wisely as we can to maximize our opportunity to attract business."
Cumberland County Commissioner Jimmy Keefe, who most recently served a year as the board's chairman, said he believes the money given to the Alliance is money well spent. He pointed out that unlike, Durham or Forsyth Counties, Cumberland is not part of a larger metropolitan area such as the Triangle or Triad. Therefore, he said Cumberland County does not have some of the infrastructure or population demographics that are often attractive to businesses. He said Cumberland County has strengths such as the large military community, but generally Cumberland County has to work harder to attract businesses.
Evans said he would like to base the county's contribution to the Alliance on the number of jobs the Alliance attracts to the area. He said the county should considering hiring its own economic development staff in lieu of paying the Alliance for the work.
"Something is not right with this picture. We are elected to serve the citizens and in serving the citizens we're supposed to be great stewards of their tax dollars, and I don't think we are, not at this point, not as far as the Chamber is concerned," Evans said.
Rogerson said there are good examples of how the Alliance is attracting positive growth to the area. He pointed to the Sykes company, which recently built a new call center along Raeford Road. The company will initially employ 150 people, but they expect to expand to around 500 people Rogerson said.
Rogerson said less money would mean he and the other two Alliance staff members would have to cut back on some efforts. He said that would result in reaching fewer companies that may consider locating in the area.
"If our budget was lower we'd do less in terms of marketing and promoting in the area. Would it be less successful? I have no idea. I don't think anybody can say that, but we do have it. We try to spend it very wisely, and we try to spend it in ways that benefit Cumberland County and Fayetteville," Rogerson explained. "It allows us to get our message out to more consultants and more companies. It's all about getting on the radar screen, creating that familiarization and creating that opportunity."
Evans vows he will bring up the contribution to the Alliance when commissioners turn their attention to the next fiscal year budget. In the meantime, he will surely mention it to anyone who will listen.