Pharos-Tribune

July 11, 2012

Debate takes eyes off ball

by Dave Kitchell
Local Columnist

— Now we might be seeing why former Logansport-Cass County Economic Development Foundation President Nolan “Skip” Kuker left town for a similar position in Greenfield. Logansport city officials, with some reluctance, are proceeding with plans to restructure the foundation board after Councilman Bob

Bishop expressed a desire to see the common city taxpayer represented on it. A change that would bypass the existing board in favor of a new management circle including the mayor and a representative of the county — maybe the county commissioners’ president — would step on the toes of the existing board and give more authority to elected officials.

Mayor Ted Franklin, who said when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2007 that he wanted his own economic development department in the City Building, has resurrected the economic development issue again. But this time, instead of having a separate department, he simply would be part of a virtual hijacking of the economic development foundation.

This has all transpired within a matter of weeks at a time when the foundation’s board president has said the board is actively in the process of selecting a candidate to succeed Kuker. City officials meanwhile are on the hook for $88,000 in County Economic Development Income Tax dollars to support the foundation and its mission, and could threaten to take their ball and go home, figuratively speaking.

As for that possibility, it might be time for the foundation to consider it and say, “Thanks city officials, we’d love to have you, but we don’t need your money.” Yes that might be a sign to the outside world and outside investors that Logansport and Cass County don’t have their mutual acts together when it comes to the No. 1 issue in this year’s presidential campaign: The economy. But there is no evidence to suggest the foundation either hasn’t done the job or that a streamlined board and not a new president could somehow do it better.

There are a number of problems with this situation. Let’s take a look at a synopsis:

1. First of all, why again is it an issue that the phantom average taxpayer hasn’t been represented on the foundation board? Over more than a quarter century, dozens of community and business leaders from the city or county have served on the board. They have been taxpayers, and both they and their corporations have paid taxes handsomely in our community. The foundation leadership has made it a point not to rely completely on tax dollars, but has worked closely with the corporate sector to fund its mission of expanding economic growth privately. Board members have tried to run a foundation like a business, but are about to be replaced by government officials who will run it like … well, you get the picture.

2. The reason it makes sense to have local business leaders on the board in part is because most new jobs don’t come from mega plants that have hundreds of cities to choose from, but from existing industries. These people are the existing industries, and the forum in which they have served has included education leaders who have to train the work force to supply the employers. Representatives from the service sector and manufacturing sector have been represented on the board. Demoting these people to an advisory capacity which has been proposed by the city is sort of the city’s way of condescending to the people who represent a huge chunk of the tax base and are fighting for their bottom line.

3. The foundation has done an excellent job of broadening the base of local stakeholders who are willing to step up to the plate and do something about job creation. Anyone who has attended an annual meeting for LEDF can appreciate that it’s more than a dinner, although city and county officials haven’t been the best at attending that meeting.

4. If the proposed compromise that has yet to be unveiled is such a good model for success, why aren’t more communities abandoning the approach the foundation has taken and executed with bipartisan support? Why is Logansport suddenly special in this approach?

5. How will the agenda for a new group of leaders be different from the agenda the foundation already has? In the spirit of accountability that Mayor Franklin has mentioned recently, it’s a fair question, and accountability has not always been forthcoming. During his campaign last year, Franklin mentioned a plan for lowering gas prices locally, yet the details of that plan have yet to emerge as gas prices pumped us up again for the Fourth of July weekend.

6. Don’t our public officials have enough to do with their current job descriptions without taking on another board assignment? Or is the real question here that in an effort to blame someone else for a lack of progress, this is really more about a political move than a practical one? Will this become a convenient excuse that allows public officials to use the excuse that they are less visible because they are working on economic development?

7. What kind of jobs will the new leadership prioritize, or avoid? Will it be taboo to recruit corporations that hire union workers and offer higher wage jobs, or will the new leadership be proactive in recruiting companies that could put local businesses and industries out of business?

8. Will the public officials serving on this board agree to forego political contributions from companies and corporations the board agrees to support with funding for infrastructure or economic development?

Those are some of the questions average taxpayers ought to be asking of their city officials, who shouldn’t always assume that their sentiment or legislation resonates with everyone.

Finally, it’s always been a local curiosity that when the foundation changed its name to include Cass County, it kept the acronym that didn’t reflect the county’s name in its title. If the foundation takes a pass on the proposed compromise by the city, the Cass County Economic Development Foundation has a nice ring to it that would send a message not only to investors, but city officials.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at ptnews@pharostribune.com.