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Official demands numbers from EDC

Commissioner Diane Rowden has insisted on detailed accounting of how the business recruitment group spends its money.

If County Commissioner Diane Rowden can't shut down the beleaguered Economic Development Commission of Hernando County, she'll try to shed more light into how the private-public operation spends its money.

On Friday, when EDC executive director Rick Michael prepared to hand over the reins, Rowden asked for copies of monthly statements from all bank accounts belonging to the EDC since its inception four years ago, as well as copies of contracts with its personnel.

The move comes a day after she sent requests through the county Budget Office for detailed line-item budgets, not only for public funds, but for private money, too, going back to the EDC's founding.

The EDC is receiving $331,000 from county taxpayers and about $115,000 in private money during the current budget year.

Rowden, who has said she plans to move to dissolve the EDC at a January commission meeting but doesn't appear to have the votes to pull it off, wants proof.

"If there's tens of thousands of dollars that have been contributed to the EDC, then show me the money," Rowden said. "At this point, it's only their word against whomevers."

Michael told the budget office that he could not reply to Rowden's first request because his board did not allow him. On Friday, the EDC office responded in writing that her requests for bank statements had been forwarded to the EDC board.

EDC board president Don Clifford said on Friday that he plans to take up all questions with his board before releasing any information. He did not say when he might do that. The next board meeting is set for 10 a.m. Jan. 10 at Bank of America at Weeki Wachee.

"We're a private nonprofit organization," he said in explanation. "There's confidentiality in such an organization that is maintained. We have to discuss this in more detail."

Rowden says she's trying to learn what each EDC employee is earning both in salary and in retirement benefits, all of which are paid with public money but are lumped together in two sums for the county budget.

The retirement package for all employees in this year's budget is about $29,000, but Clifford would not say how much of that is going to Michael, whose last day was Friday. He spent four years as executive director.

Michael's salary last year was $72,100, but Clifford has refused to release what it is now. As part of Michael's severance package, he will receive $25,000, which amounts to three months of salary, insurance benefits and car privileges, board members have said.

Michael agreed to step down under pressure from the EDC board last week after months of controversy stemming from a critical analysis of his annual report by the St. Petersburg Times; an improper closed meeting by the EDC board; and disagreements on the board about Michael's management style.

Asked Friday what he planned to do next, Michael said, "I really haven't thought about it."

He said he spent the day meeting with EDC board members and working on "transitional documents" and "things you do to keep an organization running."

"I've been doing EDC work all day long, all week long," he said.

Clifford said while Michael would not be working in the EDC offices after Friday, he would be available for questions by telephone if needed. Clifford hopes to appoint a transition team within the next few weeks to help the search for Michael's replacement, a search he estimates will take three months. In the meantime, Clifford or EDC treasurer Gus Guadagnino will be in the offices every day to help run the show. Staff members will keep their regular duties: Bonnie Chichester handling projects and Doug Vimmerstedt handling research. A third staff member is an executive assistant.

Rowden says the entire organization could gain some badly needed credibility if officials release the information she's asking for. When the County Commission formed the EDC, the idea was for private contributions to one day match and overtake tax dollars. But there's no way to know that unless all the books are open, she said.

"The whole purpose of the public-private partnership is so that they can have private negotiations (about new businesses)," she said. "What does this have to do with private negotiations, not disclosing the financial backers?"

To make the EDC more accountable, Rowden also wants to know how the EDC staff members are being paid and how the private money is being used.

"I want to know how much of our public money has been going into (Michael's) retirement fund," she said. "When you have everything done secretly like this, it makes you suspicious."

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