Aransas County commissioners held a workshop Monday, Nov. 25 that lasted 2-1/2 hours.
The lone agenda item was to “Discuss the Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Interlocal Agreement for the Aransas County Alliance Local Government Corporation including but not limited to the C6, revisions made by the Aransas County Navigation District and other issues. (Previously approved by Commissioners Court on May 13, 2019 - Tabled on October 28, 2019 and November 12, 2019).”
Commissioners are expected to make their decision regarding the revised LGC documents at their Dec. 9 meeting.
Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills addressed the format, which would be used, beginning with a long opening statement by John Jackson, one of the three incorporators who was asked to initiate the paperwork to form the EDC.
He gave a historical account about past economic development efforts and the addition of the hotel occupancy tax back in the 80s. It was a tax, which was initially opposed by many, but today provides more than $1.5 million for the promotion of Aransas County.
Jackson noted the first EDC effort ultimately failed due to lack of funding because Aransas County did not have an “EDC dedicated half-cent sales tax option (called a 4a and 4b).”
Voters approved spending the additional half-cent sales tax on healthcare expenses such as indigent healthcare.
“After Harvey, we realized we could not survive and prosper as a community on tourism alone,” said Jackson. “This community was knocked to its knees, in so many ways.
“We desperately need a more diversified economy which would be a rising tide that would raise all ships, while positively impacting everyone and all the entities.”
He said this EDC brings back the collaborative effort experienced after the storm.
Jackson noted the approximately 20 group sessions from which the current EDC evolved.
“Hurricane Harvey has given us a second chance. The LGC structure will serve as a conduit or pipeline where funds from the government entities, supplemented by private donations and grants, flow through to the C6 EDC for implementation, once policies and objectives are approved,” said Jackson. “This will result in a more diversified economy and improving the quality of life of all our residents.
“The county has already approved the LGC months ago. All that is left now in order for the county to have a seat at the table and join the other three entities (City of Rockport, Aransas County Navigation District, and Town of Fulton), is the approval of the revised LGC documents, which are clearly more favorable to the county than the original set of documents.
“The EDC can move forward without county support, but we strongly prefer all entities be at the table in helping this public/private partnership move forward, all together, in moving our communities forward.”
Long Term Recovery Team member Kim Foutz then outlined how and why this economic development effort was begun, and the roles of the LGC and C6 as set up.
The LGC was formed in lieu of a 4a or 4b, which can’t be accomplished without the sales tax, as mentioned earlier by Jackson.
“Most communities have a 4a and 4b and the C6, but we can’t have the 4a or 4b,” said Foutz.
The LGC provides dedicated annual funding as long as entities remain members. Each participating entity can opt out with 90-days notice, and each participating entity has one director on the LGC.
“The LGC will provide limited funding, therefore there is a need for the C6 with private funding,” said Foutz.
The EDC will be a one-stop shop carrying out an approved plan, goals and policies.
The LGC part of the EDC can accept tax deductible donations and grants.
The C6 is the private/nonprofit element that does the legwork for the LGC. Minimum memberships are expected to be $1,000, with additional levels determined after the initial membership meeting in January 2020.
Each member of the C6, regardless of contribution size, will only receive one vote.
The LGC, with its board makeup consisting of one elected official from each participating entity, will keep their respective entities informed.
They, not the non-profit C6, will ultimately make final decisions.
Commissioners then asked Foutz questions.
Commissioner Bubba Casterline asked about the relationship between the LGC and C6.
“The LGC will write up a contract for services, which can be presented to the C6 or anyone else,” said Foutz. “There’s no prohibition for the LGC to contract with (someone) other than the C6.”
Commissioner Jack Chaney asked how often such contracts are reviewed.
Foutz said funding contracts are generally done annually, and the C6 would have to report how its meeting goals, etc.
Commissioner Wendy Laubach asked what the LGC brings to the table that the C6 can’t.
Foutz said, “The LGC is not necessary if you don’t want to accept donations or apply for grants.”
Laubach asked what is the practical reason for having an LGC.
Foutz said, “You want everyone moving in the same direction.
“If I asked, ‘What do you want in the community?’ I’d get 50 different answers.”
Commissioner Charles Smith noted the setup is a “community benefits approach” in which business and community needs are met, including environmental concerns.
Judge Mills recalled how after Harvey people would come in and offer glowing plans for affordable housing, and then have to go to each entity to see what incentives they could receive.
Foutz noted each member government entity would first come up with its own policies (for infrastructure, etc.).
“The person coming into town (or a local person) would then go to the C6 and learn what’s available,” said Foutz.
She noted the businessperson would still need to go back to the entities for ultimate approval.
Attorney John Bell, who works with the City of Corpus Christi, said the first thing an EDC does is provide a one-stop shop and provide information.
“Visualize someone coming in from outside (the community). The EDC provides information and people to contact,” said Bell. “They (EDC) can share information about possible incentives, and provide anonymity.
“Right now you have no coordinated response.”
Chaney asked if the EDC will seek outside businesses.
Bell noted that is one of the functions of an EDC, once it gets its feet on the ground.
“They (EDCs) seek those businesses identified as needed,” said Bell.
After about 45 minutes, the floor was opened to comments, with those wishing to speak given three minutes.
The vast majority who spoke are in favor of the county being a member of the LGC.
Aransas County Independent School District Trustee Jack Wright spoke about the more than 200 students who are homeless, and the need for housing.
“We need businesses to provide jobs,” he said, adding that about three-quarters of the students in the ACISD come from economically disadvantaged homes.
Mark Wagnon, a business lawyer, said, “Whether it’s a business or a community, you’re either growing or dying.”
He encouraged the continued development of the EDC as designed, noting, “The government entities don’t have the staff to do this. Don’t miss this opportunity to get the ball rolling.”
Robert Scott said he knows growth is coming, but that it’s how we handle it that will determine what we look like in the future.
Jeff Hutt, a vocal opponent of the EDC, asked, “So, a market economy doesn’t work anymore so government has to step in?”
He urged commissioners to bring the EDC issue before voters in April.
Former Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce Chairman and small business owner Betty Hattman urged the court to approve the amended documents.
“This is critical for existing businesses,” she said.
Thirteen other individuals spoke, including 12 who were in favor of the EDC.
Chamber President/CEO asked the court to not get “hung up” on the membership levels in the C6. That will be determined after the first of the year.
She said, “The EDC is going to work off a plan. Without a plan you don’t know where you are going.”
Paradise Key owner Jim Riedel said Aransas County doesn’t have a business friendly attitude.
“It’s important to open businesses for the tax base and to provide jobs,” he said.
He added the EDC will promote economic growth in keeping with the area’s uniqueness.
Jatin Bhakta, the owner of three major hotels, said most businesses are at a low right now after the storm.
“If none of our businesses are open, what does affordable housing mean?
“As a business owner, I encourage you to support the EDC.”
Rockport City Councilman Bob Cunningham, who voted against the revisions to the documents when the Rockport City Council approved them, said, “We need to make sure the structure provides accountability and transparency.
“As elected representatives we need to be directly responsible to our constituents.
“I suggest you change the structure so that any elected representative can participate in meetings.
“The public didn’t vote on the EDC and doesn’t have the ability to leave the EDC.”
He also noted the LGC should be required to hold an annual workshop to allow the public to provide input.
Karen Mella noted the private funds raised through the C6 will supplement the funds provided by the entities.
“I urge your support to help our community grow and prosper,” she said.
Camper Clinic’s Thad Caruthers said his business was up right after the storm, but is currently down about 40 percent.
“An EDC can be another arm to bring in new businesses and customers,” he said. “The future wellbeing of our community involves many things.”
Former Rockport City Councilman Warren Hassinger said, “This is an opportunity for all entities to work together despite small differences.”
Donna Townsend said, “We’ve lost the lookers, contractors, and the workforce. I’m hoping to see all the entities working together (on this economic development effort).
“I want to see us stay within ourselves and let others show up.
“You have a way to pave the path.”
Nancy Bolting said she wants to see all the entities working together for the betterment of everyone.
Referring to her businesses, she said, “I’m hanging on, but it’s hard.”
Dr. Stacy Hawkins said, “I’m not going to lie. The past two years have been really hard. The population is down and the people aren’t here.”
Foutz then answered a wide array of questions, which had been written out by those in attendance.
How the LGC is funded was the first question.
The county and City of Rockport are providing $12,000 each, and the Aransas County Navigation District and Town of Fulton are providing $2,500.
Another question was about when the bylaws of the C6 and LGC were made public.
Foutz noted the C6 is a private corporation and the LGC’s bylaws were made available in March.
One audience member asked, “How will citizens be represented on the EDC (C6)?”
It was noted each government entity will appoint a board member, and there will be ex officio members, as well.
It was also noted the C6’s bylaws address conflicts of interest regarding members receiving incentives, and the LGC is subject to the Local Government Code.
Commissioners then made closing comments.
Laubach said she can’t personally support the EDC, but understands the concerns aired by local business owners.
“We’re all in agreement we need growth,” she said. “The question is how we produce growth with planned economics.”
Smith, in support of the EDC, said, “I think we need to be proactive. Growth is coming our way. (Not supporting this effort) would be sticking our head in the sand.”
Chaney said growth is coming, and it can either be planned or chaotic.
“We need to have a vision for our growth … not just, ‘We want growth’,” he said. “It takes boots on the ground.
“We want controlled growth and a diversity of businesses.”
Casterline noted there are now plenty of safeguards written in the amended documents.
Judge Mills said a lot of hard work by many people has been put into the formation of the EDC.
“The people of Aransas County have spoken and they want something to happen,” he said.
One woman asked to speak at the very end. She asked how an EDC benefits her and her family. She noted her property values have skyrocketed, and it’s harder and harder to make ends meet.
“I appreciate our business owners, but a good business owner will adjust to the economy,” she said.