Hernando County does not need to return to a failed business model in order to expand its economic base. The joint public-private Economic Development Commission that came to a merciful end in 2001 was a miserable experiment that promoted cronyism, lacked accountability, failed to produce tangible results and stuck taxpayers with an exorbitant four-year tab of $1.3 million. Good riddance.
But, as Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt reported, there is a movement afoot amid the private sector to try to resurrect this disaster and take economic development behind closed doors. Commissioners shouldn't buy into this scheme that has the strong potential to advance private interests before the public's.
The push is tied to the announced departure of Mike McHugh, the county's business development manager and a looming commission discussion on filling that position. The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce's advocacy group asked the county to delay the hiring process so it could research reforming the public-private partnership.
That study might be a worthwhile academic exercise if there wasn't such strong evidence of past failings in Hernando. Rather than jobbing out the task of growing the tax base to the private sector — even though most of the bill likely would be paid by taxpayers — commissioners should take advantage of the skill set of their county administrator and keep business development under the county's control.
Past instances of turning county government functions over to the private sector — the jail, the volunteer-heavy Animal Services, a privately run skate park — have proven to be problematic and required eventual county takeover and substantial investments. The commission need not repeat the experiment in economic development.
Besides, the commission majority already is combatting an image of answering to prominent business leaders in private settings rather than to constituents in open meetings. Commissioners should be trying to shed the perception of being beholden to special interests. A logical place to start is by keeping the vital mission of expanding the tax base under the purvey of county government.