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EDC budget slips by with a 3-2 vote

Hernando County commissioners okayed a $244,280 budget Wednesday for the fledgling Economic Development Commission.

The 3-2 vote, however, came after some heated exchanges among commissioners over who would pay the salary of Sue Rupe, the county's tourism coordinator, and whether the private sector was paying its fair share of economic development costs.

In the end, a majority of commissioners agreed to pay Rupe's $60,000-a-year salary, including benefits, out of the county's general fund.

Until now, Rupe's salary mainly had been paid by the county's Economic Development Department, which soon will be replaced by the Economic Development Commission.

Described as a private-public partnership modeled on a group in Orlando, the Development Commission is a non-profit organization formed in March by members of the now-defunct Industrial Development Authority who were appointed by county commissioners.

The commission, run by a volunteer board recruited mostly from the business sector, is charged with expanding Hernando's industrial base by attracting new companies to the county. The county commissioners have one seat on the 14-seat board and will review the group's annual audits.

The EDC's $244,280 budget primarily will be used to pay its director and to cover marketing expenses.

But no funds will be handed over to the EDC until it signs a contract with the county, which is expected in the next week.

"We're optimistic and we're encouraged," John Wickert, EDC's president, said about Wednesday's vote. "It just reaffirms what we're trying to do."

But two county commissioners and some county residents objected to turning over the entire $244,280 to the EDC.

The organization has said it plans to raise an additional $9,500 from membership fees and dues after it opens bank accounts and completes paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service. The EDC will not move into the Economic Development Department's office in the Airport Industrial Park and is searching for office space.

Commissioner Pat Novy questioned why the EDC had not presented a fund-raising plan and why it was relying so much on public funds.

"Put your money where your mouth is," Novy said.

Al Sevier, a county resident, echoed the criticism.

"We're talking about public funds that are going to be privately run," Sevier said. "I suggest giving them $100,000."

Novy and Commissioner June Ester praised Rupe for her work and argued that funding for her position should come out of the EDC's budget because tourism is integral to economic development.

That drew criticism from Commissioner John Richardson, who also is an EDC board member. He said the EDC would not be able to do its job if its budget was cut by $60,000.

"You want to rob the EDC," Richardson said, glaring at Ester.

Ester also said she wanted to wait until after the county had completed its contract negotiations with the EDC before voting on its budget. She and Novy voted against the budget request.

In a separate 4-1 vote, commissioners opted to pay for Rupe's salary and benefits out of the county's general fund. Novy, who cast the dissenting vote, said she didn't think that would be fair to other departments that have made sacrifices because of the budget crunch.

The EDC has selected its director but has refused to name the individual until the county contract is confirmed.

Wickert declined to reveal the director's taxpayer-supported salary, which will be $45,000 to $63,000.

The group's attorney, Tom Hogan Jr., has said that economic development commissions like Hernando's are exempt from Florida's open records laws.

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