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.
Well it’s about time somebody was paying attention, smartened up, did the research, put it all together, and had Van Elkert fired. It was going on for a long time. Thank you Mr. Obrien. I’m also glad Mr Cameron will find other jobs for her employees, that’s a very fair thing to do. Wow, $4 million dollars for nothing.
““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.”
I think this is every corporate or government presentation though. Too often, dubious claims & calculations comes from the White House in DC, on down to local government departments, county & city. If this department didn’t create 515 jobs, did the City of Bunnell even create 515 jobs. I mean look at Federal employment reports for that matter ?
CB from PC says
The jobs are being created…Elsewhere.
The Trump job creation machine bypassed Flagler due to the location,
relatively unskilled rank and file labor force, retired labor force, and overpaid overbenefitted government employees who won’t work for standard pitiful FL wages. So who else is there to come to work for a company?
If you cannot hire skilled qualified employees, go elsewhere.
CB from PC says
Good Riddance Helga.
And to the Commissioners, it took 8 years to wise up this was “PR”?
Shall we say, as in Germany, that all of you are a bunch of Dumbkopfs?
BILL NELSON says
It’s about time the “free-loaders are caught up with. Too bad it took years of waste to the taxpayers. Where has our County council been ??
Percy's mother says
Glad to hear Ms. Van Eckert is on “administrative leave” and soon to be gone.
What has she accomplished since 2012 for her $129,604 salary? In the private sector, she would have been canned years ago.
There’s been a radio ad on WNZF with her touting lots of jobs in Flagler County at $31,000.00 a year. That’s laughable, and I did smirk every time I heard the radio ad. Who can live on $31,000.00 in 2020? By that, she was trying to save her skin. Glad it didn’t work.
The travel expenses on the county’s tab to New Jersey (where her boyfriend lives) are/were questionable. She was having a grand old life at taxpayer expense and laughing all the way to the bank
By the way, were her credentials ever verified? or did Mr. Coffey hire her based on just a resume?
We need to start VERIFYING all credentials for incoming job applicants in Flagler County government.
There are an awful lot of people in high positions in Flagler County touting a phenomenal education and experience; however, the credentials are fake and easily verified to be fake, i.e., claiming one is a PhD when the piece of paper (“diploma”) is from an internet paper mill, and I’m not talking about Ms. Eckert.
9 years is more than enough time to determine if you’re (we’re) getting any return on the dollar. Too bad more accountability wasn’t written into the funding contract in the first place.
tks one 2 knw one says
The sheer fact that someone was paid $130K… and sucked so badly at the job.. in my eyes also fires everyone who knew her.. no way she was worth that much and sucked so bad and no one knew.. it takes one to know one… I blew my nose this morning in a tissue.. little did I know I was hot on the tail of becoming a Board member with my fluffy interiors that came flying out.
Newbie in PC says
This county has plenty of affordable land to build Technology Centers and Mental heath facilities. The county lacks both. Time to change the vision,
Optimist Prime says
“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.)
…Wow. These local county & city type jobs are excessively “cushy.”
About time…now take a look at the TDC and calculate an ROI for all the salaries and spending they do. I’ll bet a year of my salary that the county would pocket more bed taxes if they shut it down after you subtract expenses from current revenue….ie…salaries/benefits, marketing, handouts etc etc.
Glacial in the final analysis that no results were being realized . Come on 5 years ago should have been it. Who’s Sugar baby was she. Smh
Berkeley’s Grammie says
I certainly hope an investigation into any of her expenses are verified and if the findings are that it was NOT County business, that she be held accountable to pay back ALL monies due immediately. It only fair that accountability be involved in her dismissal or firing.
As everyone unceremoniously hates on van Eckert, I suspect that every single last one of you would have taken the job at the pay rate given and held on to that job as long as you possibly could, as did she. Every. Single. Last. One. Of. You.
The untethered hate and staggering jealously in this pathetic little retirement community is stunning. The problem isn’t the person; the problem lies with the process (or lack thereof) of permitting the position and department with apparently ZERO accountability measures in place for assuring that tax-payer money is spent wisely and getting an applicable return on investment. A comparable “Business Development” role in any other non-government enterprise would certainly have goals and milestones in place, along with a low base cost of living salary (or draw) plus performance pay. That’s how REAL business works in this country. The county leaders did not do THEIR jobs in making certain this was done over the last 8 years. THEY’RE the ones who ultimately need to be held accountable and shown the proverbial door.
Mr. O’Brien did, he deserves a lot of credit. And you are correct, the previous Chairman , backward missed the boat.
Seems like new players are getting this ship in order, moving forward.
Stan Gruchawka says
The remaining allocated funds need to be returned to the taxpayers via a tax credit, not “redistributed”.
I never understood the need to get rid of enterprise flagler. The country’s contribution averaged 100k a year (total). The remaining budget was provided by City of Palm, and the private sector 1/3,1/3,1/3
Plus it forced city and county to work on something for the common good.