The results of a Board of Supervisors-initiated study to streamline the county’s 51 advisory boards, committees and commissions have prompted a special meeting of the Rural Economic Development Council Wednesday.
The meeting was called after an agenda item was posted Friday for the supervisors’ May 15 meeting detailing the initial recommendations—including that the REDC, along with the Economic Development Commission and many others, be converted from their current status as appointed county advisory panels with full staff support to community-based groups. Currently there are 554 residents who volunteer their time on various county advisory panels.
Rural business leaders involved in the REDC reacted quickly, expressing dismay and confusion. Three members called for the special meeting, which will be held tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the situation.
The members questioned the timing of the restructuring recommendations, given that county supervisors just weeks ago authenticated and funded the REDC’s Rural Economic Development Business Strategy, a project that took 18 months to develop.
REDC Chairman Mary Ellen Taylor said the support of the county staff to get the rural business strategy approved and funded had been invaluable. The staff is seen by the REDC as a partner in championing the rural initiative.
“We’ve been very tight, meeting together all that time,” Taylor said.
Transitioning to a community-based group status would free up staff resources, which involves many hours of government personnel time, and would also mean members would no longer be appointed by supervisors, according to the staff report on the agenda item.
The study was undertaken by County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At large) and Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), who recommended either the board take action Wednesday night or send some or all of the recommendations for further study to the Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee.
Loudoun Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Boles said Monday if the recommendation ultimately is approved, the REDC and EDC in future could incorporate however they wanted to, perhaps as nonprofits or business associations. The main difference would be they would be separate from county government and would not receive staff support, although departmental assistance for the rural economy would continue.
Taylor agreed with Clarke that some commissions don’t have all their seats filled or don’t meet regularly and don’t need comprehensive staff assistance.
“But, with the EDC and the REDC that’s not the case,” she said, noting the two groups are among the most active county advisory commissions.
Such a move could deter the willingness to volunteer on the part of small businesses, Taylor said. “They could not manage what we do, and we’re just now getting recognition as business people. What staff does for us is critical,” she said, including advice on how to maneuver through the whole government structure. “It was a shock to think that in the near future we could lose our staff support.”
As chairman of the REDC and having to be familiar with the county government process, with no staff, “that would leave me no time to run my small business,” the owner of Endless Summer Harvest said. She also has subcommittee responsibilities on the EDC
Tylor said Clarke suggested that both economic development commissions could logically be put under the aegis of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, which would be able to supply administrative support.
Taylor said one of the benefits of volunteering is the good feeling of being credentialed by the county board.
“Being appointed by the Board of Supervisors is a nice recognition … and you’re representing the whole county.” Taylor said one of her responses would be to prepare rural leaders for the necessity of going solo. She recalled the bleak outlook some years back when the county pulled out as partner in the HomeGrown Markets Association. “We suffered an estimated $72,000 loss in administrative support—photocopying, printing, minutes etc,” she said.
“I thought we’d never make it, but look at them now. They’re a co-operative and they’re paying each other. They’re doing a fantastic job.” She also noted Chamber President Tony Howard has been supportive of the rural economy and is a standing member of the REDC and the EDC.
Howard, reached Monday, said he and his staff were still trying to figure out what would be involved and what, if anything the Chamber could do. He is a standing member of both the EDC and the REDC. There seemed to be some feeling the EDC was duplicating what the Chamber does, but Howard disputed that notion.
“It’s important to note it’s not a duplication of efforts in the actions of the Chamber with the EDC and the REDC.” The latter groups were specifically constructed to give advice concerning the county’s economic development and its rural economy, he said.
“We’re independent. We give advice, but we’re not in an advisory position; we have a distinct and unique role,” Howard said.
Two former heads of the REDC also expressed concern. Jeff Browning, owner of Browning Equipment in Purcellville, was the first chairman of the REDC when it was founded in 2001. “I’m a little bit shocked—the board just voted to proceed with the rural economic development strategy,” he said.
While agreeing there are too many committees for the county and probably some should be merged or disbanded per the recommendation, Browning the REDC and EDC are too active, he said.
As an appointed advisory group to the board, “I thought we would have received more respect,” Browning said. Noting he has always championed a strictly non-political position on the REDC whatever the issue, “I’ve always said we have success because we don’t get political, we always walked a non-partisan line.” Browning said he thought it “shortsighted to alienate so many strong business people interested in the county government process.”
Another former REDC chairman, Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars, and co-chair of the recent rural strategy group, said bluntly, “I don’t understand their logic in opting out of a partnership they authorized.”
Fabbioli said he was confused by a board’s actions that has supported the work of the REDC so well. “We have strongly appreciated the work that county staff has put in to achieve the goals of rural business plans and the General Plan.”
Fabbioli said in his opinion, “they are trying to move staff to focus on harvesting, rather than growing the products that need to be harvested as well as providing a good climate for the public-private partnerships we’ve developed over the years.”