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Saratoga County, economic development group at odds over end to relationship

Thursday, May 2, 2013
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— Saratoga County and its chief economic development agency offered competing versions Thursday of why the agency’s 35-year relationship with the county is being terminated.

Officials at the Saratoga Economic Development Corp. said the organization is being dropped because the SEDC board rejected a request to put a county supervisor on its board. The SEDC said in a statement that it blocked the idea to avoid being subject to political influence.

But county officials said SEDC wasn’t willing to accept their plan to increase its public accountability.

SEDC, a private nonprofit that has been the county’s main economic development marketing tool, will continue operating despite losing the $200,000 in annual county funding, its leaders said.

The county payment is about one-quarter of SEDC’s budget, but the organization said it hopes to make up the loss through fundraising.

“Our doors will continue to stay open, we will continue to be the first point of contact for economic development project management in Saratoga County,” the organization said in a written statement.

The exchange Thursday came after the county Board of Supervisors’ Economic Development Committee voted Wednesday to terminate the county’s annual agreement with SEDC as of Dec. 31.

The county plans to develop its own economic development marketing program, to go into effect next year.

“The committee’s goal is to create a marketing initiative which is solely dedicated to economic development in Saratoga County, aligns with the Board of Supervisors’ strategic vision, and is accountable to Saratoga County residents,” Economic Development Committee Chairman John E. Lawler, R-Waterford, said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

County Board Chairman Alan R. Grattidge, R-Charlton, said SEDC over time has become more “membership-driven.” SEDC’s more than 400 members are private corporations doing business in the county.

Officials at SEDC, which is based in Saratoga Springs, said the county’s decision was prompted by a March 27 vote by the SEDC board not to change its bylaws to place an elected official — presumably a county supervisor — on its board.

But supervisors said the request was a way of seeking accountability. “This request was intended to directly provide the Board with more adequate information regarding SEDC’s activities, which are funded at a substantial level through public dollars,” supervisors said in a statement in response to SEDC.

The policy that no elected officials be on the SEDC board was established in 1978 “to ensure economic development remain free of political influence,” the SEDC statement said.

The county administrator, currently Spencer Hellwig III, is by charter a member of SEDC’s board, and is supposed to keep supervisors apprised of its work.

SEDC officials said they feared that having an elected official on the board could threaten the confidentiality of talks with businesses considering investment in the county. “The appointment of an elected official to the SEDC board could trigger sunshine laws that could endanger the often-sensitive nature of negotiations,” the statement said.

County officials said they don’t believe that’s true, and the way SEDC operates now allows an unacceptable level of secrecy.

“The Board of Supervisors has acted responsibly in making reasonable requests from SEDC for better access to information regarding its publicly funded activities,” Lawler said.

SEDC’s core mission is to create jobs through the retention of existing businesses and attracting new businesses to the county.

In the last decade, much of SEDC’s focus has been on creation of the Luther Forest Technology Campus, and laying the groundwork to bring the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant into the county. Ball Metal, Quad/Graphics, Ace Hardware and Target are other companies SEDC helped bring to the county over the last 30 years.

But county officials said that when GlobalFoundries is excluded, SEDC’s activities have created fewer than 650 new jobs since 2008, at the low point in the Great Recession.

SEDC officials said the organization plans to keep operating, relying on private funds. In addition to private donations, SEDC receives a share of the fee when corporations get incentive packages through the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency.

 
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