Catoosa County debates payments to economic development group

Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene, left, and Commissioner Bobby Winters sit during a previous commissioners' meeting.

How the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority is funded

Catoosa County: $96,913Chattooga County: $39,022Dade County: $24,950Walker County: $103,134Total: $264,019*Source: JDA audit, 2012-13 (most recent audit)

Proposed increase?

Randall Peters, a JDA board member, says the board voted earlier this year to ask the commissioner to approve a rate increase. Right now, the counties pay to the JDA $1.50 per resident in their jurisdiction. The proposed hike is an extra 25 cents per resident.JDA Project Manager Keith Barclift said the funding increase would help them advertise the region more aggressively.Funding, with increase:Catoosa County: $113,065Chattooga County: $45,526Dade County: $29,108Walker County: $120,323Total: $308,022

How the JDA spends its funding, per year

Program Services: $250,988General/Managerial Services: $11,828Source: JDA audits, 2012-13

Private funding

In addition to county funding, the JDA’s efforts are bolstered by donations to the Top of Georgia, a nonprofit organization run by state Sen. Jeff Mullis. Money raised:2011: $27,5002012:$225,5202013: $178,6412014: $137,695Source: Top of Georgia 990s

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Where did $700,000 go?

That's what Catoosa County commissioners will debate Monday at 5 p.m. as they try to agree on a final draft of their new budget. At issue is the county's involvement in the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority, a government-authorized cooperative that recruits businesses to the region.

Catoosa County joined the JDA in 2008, giving the authority about $97,000 per year. But during a budget planning meeting last week, Commission Chairman Keith Greene suggested the investment has been a waste.

"I haven't seen anything from the JDA," he said on Aug. 19.

Commissioners Jim Cutler and Jeff Long, who support the annual investment, told Greene the lack of results has not been the fault of the authority. Instead, they blame their county.

"The biggest complaint from the JDA is we don't have the land," Cutler said. "I'm not sure if they're not doing their job, or we're not doing our job."

Greene said Cutler and Long might have a point. Maybe the county doesn't have enough land to recruit the manufacturing businesses that the JDA could help them land. But assuming that's the case, what's the point of paying the group?

"We should have the property and the building first," said Greene, who leave the commission next year after losing a re-election bid in May. "That $700,000 we spent could have contributed to buying land and doing those things to prepare [for manufacturing companies.]"

With Cutler, Greene and Long set taking firm stances last week, the two deciding votes rest with Commissioners Ray Johnson and Bobby Winters. Both said Friday they were still undecided and they plan to meet with the JDA's executive director, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

Mullis did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

The same debate is playing out in two of the other three counties that contribute to the JDA, which charges a fee of $1.50 per resident. To be members of the group, Chattooga County pays $39,000 per year, Dade County pays $25,000 and Walker County pays $103,000.

In Chattooga County, incumbent Commissioner Jason Winters said he "100 percent" supports the JDA, crediting Mullis with convincing Mohawk Industries to expand a local factory. His challenger, Jimmy Holbrook, said Mullis will need to convince him to continue funding the JDA if he wins the election in November, pointing out that the county also funds the chamber of commerce and a local economic development specialist.

In Walker County, candidates Perry Lamb and Shannon Whitfield also say Mullis would need to convince them that the county's investment is worthwhile. Whitfield's campaign manager, Bobby Teems, is a JDA board member. But he said Whitfield will take a hard look at the organization.

Incumbent Commissioner Bebe Heiskell did not return a call seeking comment this week.

Keith Barclift, the JDA's project manager, said it's hard to quantify the exact impact of the authority. The most concrete impact, though, comes in the form of tax credits. Under Georgia law, a county that is a member of a JDA can offer $500 more in credit, per job created by a new business.

In Catoosa County, that means a new business could get $1,250 in tax credits if the county remains a member of the JDA. If a company creates 40 jobs, being in the authority adds an extra $20,000 in tax incentives that the county can offer.

Beyond that, Barclift said, members of the JDA spend money advertising all four counties to prospective businesses, go to trade shows and network with power players in Atlanta. He compared membership in the JDA to a fire hydrant.

"You don't know if you're going to need it unless a prospect is knocking on your door," he said. "It's hard to say if you're getting a return on investment. There are some intangibles. You're not going to put a dollar on some of it."

In a news release, JDA board Chairman Chip Catlett said the authority has created more than 2,400 jobs in less than three years. The JDA also provided a chart to the Times Free Press, showing that in Catoosa County it helped Lake Winnie expand, helped recruit Georgia Northwestern Technical College to open a Ringgold campus and helped lure Cabela's to a spot next to Costco.

But the latter store exposes the concern Greene has raised. In addition to membership in the JDA, all four counties have their own economic arms, muddying the waters when it comes to understanding specifically what the JDA brings to the table. In Catoosa County, that arm is the Economic Development Authority.

Randall Peters, chairman of the EDA, said Catoosa County is different from the other three counties because it is located off Interstate 75, giving it more through traffic - a key to landing Costco and Cabela's.

Plus, Catoosa County doesn't have as much space for industrial parks, limiting its recruitment of manufacturing companies. Peters, who also sits on the board of the JDA, said it was not a factor in recruiting Costco. Concerning Cabela's, the JDA stepped up because Mullis helped get approval from the Department of Transportation to lower the grade of the road in front of the store and remove a swath of trees.

The road needed to be lowered because it was on the same level as the interstate. At night, when cars left the store, their lights could have shined in the faces of drivers on the highway. The trees also needed to go. Cabela's management said they blocked the view of the store.

"You could argue Cabela's wouldn't have come," Barclift said.

But Jim Emberson, a member of the Catoosa County EDA, said getting approval to remove trees and lower the ground falls under the purview of Mullis as a state senator - regardless of whether Catoosa County is a member of his economic development group.

Winters, of Chattooga County, disagrees.

"I view the two roles as different," he said. "You have the Joint Development Authority executive director hat, and you have the senator hat."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.