Over the past three years, Pasco commissioners have cut libraries, parks and animal control but have held steady the $430,500 annual contribution for one agency — Pasco Economic Development Council, the private group charged with helping recruit new businesses and keeping the existing ones happy.
Their reasoning: A recession is a bad time to cut the agency trying to spur job growth in a county long dependent on the housing market.
But at least two commissioners are pushing for some level of cuts to the agency this year, a move that PEDC officials argue could hurt the county's economic development efforts in the long run.
Commissioner Michael Cox suggested this week cutting the appropriation by 10 percent. Commissioner Ted Schrader went even further, saying he could support cutting it in half.
"It's really not so much what they're doing or not doing," said Schrader, who is also opposed to the $300,000 that goes to outside social service agencies. "It's am I willing to raise the millage rate to fund EDC, to fund outside agencies, when obviously people are struggling to pay their bills, pay their mortgages, to pay their daily expenses? How can I go outside to the constituents to say, 'We raised your millage rate to fund these agencies or these programs?' "
The county's appropriation makes up more than 40 percent of the PEDC's typical $1 million budget. The group raises the rest from private businesses.
Last year, the agency embarked on a more aggressive job recruiting program, dubbed New Pasco, that would also try to increase private sector buy-in. The goal was to raise $536,500 by the end of 2010.
Executive director John Hagen said PEDC raised $274,000 last year, up from $218,000 the previous year and $190,000 the year before that.
"We're trying to kind of turn the corner and get more private sector involvement," Hagen said. "But that takes time."
Part of the problem is the economy and part is that there are no major companies to write big checks in Pasco County.
"I think from our perspective, we're one of the few opportunities the county has to go out and try to increase revenue without increasing taxes," he said.
PEDC has four paid staff members and a vacancy for a new position that focuses on existing businesses, said Hagen, who declined to say how much he is paid. The agency, along with local and state officials, lobbied heavily to get T. Rowe Price to decide to build an office complex in Land O'Lakes.
Wilton Simpson, an east Pasco businessman who serves as the president of PEDC's board of directors, said the group is still trying to get some wind under its sails with the new initiative.
"I think it'd be unfortunate, with the amount of work that the board volunteers are doing," he said. "We know this is a very, very tough budget year. Normally, though, you would not cut your economic development partner in times you need them more."
Cox, who serves as the commission's liaison to the PEDC, said he thinks the agency can dip into its reserves — Hagen estimated it had about $200,000 — to help cover the shortfall.
"I certainly want to support their mission and I don't believe they're going to adversely hurt their mission if we cut their budget, because they have money in the reserves," he said.
Simpson said that's an option but that the agency is already running a slight deficit. "It may buy us a year," he said.
Commissioners have said they may end up paying PEDC its appropriation out of a $2 million account set up for job recruitment.
PEDC board members have been lobbying commissioners against making any cuts. Simpson said the board's executive committee is holding a teleconference today to talk more about the budget.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.