Cannon questions Culver on economic office spending details

County Executive Bob Culver’s efforts to create an Economic Development office as part of the county’s government appears to be back on track after a surprisingly tense discussion on the matter last week.

While considering a measure that would formally create a department and establish job descriptions and salaries for a director and an assistant, some tough questions from County Council President John Cannon nearly sent the train off the rails.

When adopting the fiscal budget in June, the County Council approved a pool of money ─ more than $600,000  ─ for economic development initiatives that would be sought by Culver and his staff.

Following historical precedent, the county would contribute about $145,000 toward the efforts of the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Corp., a private entity that monitors the local economy and promotes business retention and development.

That left about $340,000 in operating funds for the county’s new economic promotion internal office.

Cannon seemed to surprise Culver when he announced the office expenses needed to be itemized, and then suggested the council fund a smaller amount ─ $50,000 to $100,000 ─ until members knew where the cash would be spent.

“We all know this is of the highest priority for this county and for the executive,” said Cannon. “What I would like to see is where the money is going to go and how it’s going to be done.” Cannon said he would be more comfortable if the operating expenses, listed as $339,820, were something “something more realistic, now that the dust has settled ─ maybe something like $50,000.”

Cannon said he wanted to somehow compare that to what other departments are receiving, especially similar two-man departments.

“I think $50,000 would be a good operating budget and we could maybe transfer the rest of that to contingency,” he said. “I don’t want this to be characterized (publicly) as we are going to have an operating expense of $335,000 in one department.”

Culver flared at Cannon’s comments and suggested the council president was seeking to subvert his powers.

“Let’s talk to the professionals who we are going to hire and see what their ideas are for the money,” Culver said. “To go in there with $50,000, you’re tying those people’s hands. You might as well just say ‘Let’s just shut this whole department down,’ if that’s what you want to do.”

Cannon responded that the executive could return to the council “anytime to tell us what you’re going to do” and present itemized spending plans.

Replied Culver: “I just totally disagree with you. I just feel like you’re going to try to tie the hands of the econ department. … I feel like you’re trying to do the executive’s job and if you want to come up with a budget and let me approve it I’d be glad to do that.”

County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg entered the debate, backing Culver’s contention that it appeared that Cannon might be treading on the executive’s turf.

“Until you have your Economic Development person in place and we allow that person to chart out a strategy, I think it’s difficult to say if $50,000 is right or $300,000 is right,” Strausburg said. “If we try to go out and hire a business development officer and we say your budget is $50,000, they may say there’s no way to execute a business development plan for a county of this size with (just) $50,000.”

Seeming to sense that what was scripted as a minor issue had spun out of control, Cannon sought to explain his concern a final time.

“I’ve already had some people come to me and say ‘600 and some thousand dollars for economic development?’ And these are business people. And I say, ‘Well, that’s true, it’s just a figure that we’re starting with just to see where we’re going.’

“But now that it’s starting to break out, someone’s going to say: ‘What are you spending $300,000 on?’ and I (have to say) say ‘I’m not sure.’ ”

Council Vice President Matt Holloway brought the debate to a close by seeking to declare the County Executive’s authority while also defining the council’s role.

“We are the watchdogs of the people’s money, but I hate micromanagement,” Holloway said. “It’s more attractive if we can say to whoever we’re going to hire for this position, ‘We have $339,000, make it work,’ ” Holloway said. “It’s a risk… but this whole thing is an experiment. I hope it works, I have faith that it will, but for us to say we’re only going to give you $50,000 or $100,000 and come back to us ─ that’s micromanagement, I don’t like it. It exceeds the boundaries of the department.”

Culver has already spent money from the appropriation on office rent for space in Downtown Salisbury, as well as a highway billboard campaign.

The council set a public hearing on the Economic Development Office matter for its Oct. 6. night meeting.

“Just come back and tell us how you’re going to spend the $339,000,” Cannon told Culver and Strausburg.

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