Nine years after creating it and with little to show for the more than $4 million spent to keep it going, the Flagler County Commission today voted 3-1 to end its economic development department, which will result in the firing of Helga van Eckert, its director since day one.
The commission also ended the existence of the economic development advisory board, the largely ceremonial council that had served as van Eckert’s chief audience and cheerleader for the past several years.
The commission elected to have just one county staffer assuming economic development responsibilities.
Commissioner Donald O’Brien delivered a long statement explaining his decision to move to end the department, citing rising costs with little return, a “convoluted structure” that wasn’t working, a lack of accountability, including to the county administration, an “anemic” economic development advisory council, “fluffy” reports by van Eckert. (See: “Flagler County’s Economic Development Farce Is Wasting Millions of Taxpayer Dollars to Beat Its Own Drums.”)
“Often credit is taken for projects that the department had very little involvement with,” O’Brien said, citing as the most recent example a food-truck manufacturing company coming to Bunnell. That was a deal developed with help from the Bunnell city administration. “Or,” O’Brien continued, “reliance on the same past successes from several years ago. Just look at the report provided today under department metrics – 515 jobs created in 2018 – 2019. Really? Where is the back-up and documentation?”
In fact, the sort of evidence presented was similarly vague as in previous such presentations, relying on dubious claims and calculations. The department did not create anywhere near 515 jobs in the past two years, and it is doubtful it created anywhere near that number in its entire existence. Van Eckert had made just such a presentation to the commission this very morning: she knew O’Brien’s move was coming. She attempted to pre-empt it with what has arguably been her department’s most effective (and well-funded) operation: its PR. But the reel looked more like a rerun.
The vote was opposed by Commissioner Greg Hansen. Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was absent. Hansen called it “an interesting motion,” but one that was being rushed. He proposed having O’Brien’s concerns studied, “but not summarily dismiss the whole economic development team, which is being suggested.” Almost all of O’Brien’s concerns have been previously reported and documented, however.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron, who had been vexed by the structure of the economic development department, which he did not control, of course did not speak against the proposal. He said he could and would find positions for the department’s employees. But there was no question that van Eckert was not in that group. In a brief interview afterward Cameron said van Eckert was “on administrative leave with pay until I determine how the separation occurs, which I’ll do in the next day or so.” He said van Eckert had no longer any access to the Government Services Building. She had started in February 2012 at a salary of $110,676. She is currently on an annual salary of $129,604.
The vote directs the county administration to “defund” the economic development department, create one position assigned to economic development responsibilities, find jobs elsewhere in the organization for existing economic development staff, and submit a written plan outlining how the department’s annual allocation will be redistributed. The plan does not address further economic incentive programs.
O’Brien prefaced his remarks by saying that “sometimes people see the same picture differently,” a reference to the earlier presentation, and warned that he was “going to say some tough things here but they’ve been on my mind for a very long time.” One of those things was a direct reference to van Eckert’s trips: “I question the thousands of dollars that have been spent on ‘recruiting trips’ always to New Jersey or Connecticut,” O’Brien said (the quote marks around “recruiting trips” was in his written text.) “Other than a few earlier successes such as Gioia Sails, where are the results of these efforts? I cannot find any detailed reports of activities that we can tie back to results.” Van Eckert’s boyfriend lives in New Jersey, and County Administrator Jerry Cameron himself was grousing in the last few months about a trip that way, on the county’s dime, that raised doubts about its substantial connection to county business.
O’Brien systematically went through the department’s history and achievements, pointing out “lack of results” and “poor judgment,” van Eckert’s specifically, “with respect to understanding the current economic environment as well as dealing with other business leaders in the community.” He cited several examples, among them Palm Coast’s success in designating an Opportunity Zone in Town Center, the county’s only such zone, while van Eckert’s department failed to do so, while “degrading” the relationship between the county and Town Center’s most active developer right now (Allete Properties).
Another example was the collapse of the county’s deal, highly and repeatedly publicized before the county commission, the economic development council and the public, with Discovery World Furniture, the Sanford company that van Eckert claimed was to open a manufacturing plant at the south end of the county, building the largest manufacturing building in the county. She had done so even though the property did not have the utilities needed to operate. O’Brien’s third example was the “spec building” built with county backing to draw private companies, on U.S. 1, with no success, though van Eckert was seeking more grants to build yet another such building at the county airport. “Does that make sense?” O’Brien asked.
“I have researched this issue for several months and thought long and hard about our structure, the spending of general revenue tax dollars on economic development activities and our continuing lack of any significant results. I have arrived at the conclusion that we can and must do better and we must be more efficient and effective in how we spend general revenue tax dollars on economic development.”
Original funding for the department was $300,000. This year it’s $534,000. The department was set up in such a way as to mirror the public-partnership approach but without private investment. And the ordinance setting up the department gave the department’s director near-total autonomy from the county administrator: read a certain way, the ordinance meant that the director did not answer to the county administrator. (That was the way van Eckert read it, as she herself reminded Cameron.) That was the case even though the department drew on general revenue tax dollars.
O’Brien pointed out how the department’s budget has grown 34 percent in five years, its personnel expenses by 62 percent. The county has earmarked $500,000 in incentives a year in recent years but has awarded no more than $3,000 in any given year, meaning that while van Eckert has often publicized various projects that would qualify, very few actually got to the point where they could cash in: very few proved viable (and several of those that did qualify, such as Coastal Cloud, ultimately chose to decline subsidies and involvement with the county, though van Eckert kept a PR poster on public view at the Government Services Building claiming a connection between the county and Coastal Cloud). O’Brien said neighboring counties have far more favorable ratios of money spent on their economic development departments and on incentives.