08/07/05 — Officials still unsure NCER is doing its job

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Officials still unsure NCER is doing its job

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on August 7, 2005 2:04 AM

The Wayne County Economic Development Commission is pushing for changes in an organization developed to bring jobs to eastern North Carolina.

EDC members say the North Carolina Eastern Region partnership isn't doing its job, and is spending too much money on salaries and travel.

Board member Jimmie Edmundson said the only benefit he had received from the partnership was the ballpoint pen he held in his hand.

"It has their name on it, and it was made in China," Edmundson said. "That means they probably had to take a trip to Beijing or Hong Kong to work out the deal, and another trip to get the pens."

And, he added, "the pen doesn't work."

The regional partnership was created a decade ago by the state to promote economic development for 13 counties in the eastern part of the state.

The 13 counties that are part of the organization include Carteret, Craven, Duplin, Edgecombe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Onslow, Pamlico, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson.

Officials from the 13 counties have questioned the organization's $90,000 travel budget, which includes trips to Europe and other countries.

Part of the problem, say EDC members, is the composition of the Eastern Region's board doesn't guarantee official representation from each county.

After learning last spring that the board's membership was set by law, the counties urged legislators to change the law. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote soon on that bill, but County Manager Lee Smith said it might be defeated because of a constitutional issue.

"Apparently the Eastern Region is considered to be a taxing authority, and has to have certain membership," Smith said. "I'm disappointed because I feel that the board is cumbersome and not effective."

The current board has 39 voting members. Smith and other counties would like to see that number go down to 19 members.

"The membership we proposed was to have one representative from each of the 13 counties -- two members appointed by the governor, two from the president pro tem and two by the speaker," Smith said.

The partnership received taxing authority because part of the money it uses to operate came from a $5 license tag fee that was levied for five years.

Other operating funds come from a $7.5 million state grant awarded at its creation. The fund created by the grant and tag fee generates interest that is also used for expenses.

"The eastern region was set up a little differently because of the Global Transpark license fee," Smith said. "Maybe we should just separate it out and create an eastern region board."

Joanna Thompson, EDC president, said the partnership did a good job in some basic economic development areas, but that its primary task was to develop business leads for counties.

"We've only received a handful of leads from them in the past 10 years," she said.

During a June meeting, members of NCER's executive committee and its staff could not say how many documented contacts with clients were made in the past year, but they said they were conducting targeted marketing campaigns.

The EDC and officials from other counties are now asking legislators to consider eliminating the taxing authority of the partnership.

"If we need a license tag fee, then let the individual counties do it," Smith said.