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A joint meeting between Baxter County’s Economic Development Committee and its Budget Committee will be held on the 2nd floor of the Baxter County Courthouse at 5 p.m. this evening.
The meeting will be attended by a majority of the Baxter County Quorum Court, with Justice of the Peace Tink Albright, Angela DeGroote, Charles Osgood and Dirk Waldrop representing the Economic Development Committee.
The Budge Committee is represented by Justice of the Peace Dennis Frank, Maryanne Edge, Rick Steiner and Shannon Walker. Justice of the Peace Cameron Davis, who serves on both committees, will also be in attendance.
Following the approval of meeting minutes and a presentation by Teresa Smith over cyber security’s impact on the 2024 budget, a full discussion will be held of the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce’s proposed $40,000 economic development contract with Baxter County.
The meeting is open to the public. Members of the court ask the public to be respectful to one another during the meeting and ask that Robert’s Rules be followed by all in attendance.
Chamber response to controversy
The revelation that the Mountain Home City Council failed to follow legal procedures with entering into an economic development contract with the Chamber’s North Central Arkansas Chamber Foundation has added fuel to the political fire surrounding the Chamber’s $40,000 proposal.
That fire has spread to social media, prompting Chamber President Dani Pugsley to release a response to address members of the Mountain Home community who have framed the Chamber’s proposal, and the subsequent legal failing by the Mountain Home City Council as evidence of “nefarious” activity by both organizations. Pugsley also addressed misinformation surrounding rumors of her using the proposed money for a raise and allegations that the money would be used to fund her continuing education.
The economic development deal between the Chamber and city council has been put on hold, according to Mountain Home City Attorney Roger Morgan. It should be noted that the legal misstep was caught by members of city council, and steps were immediately taken to put a halt to the deal.
In an email to the Observer, Pugsley also said she would be removing the “pay-for-play” setup that was initially proposed for seats on the Chamber Foundation’s board.
Before 2016, chambers in cities like Bella Vista, Bentonville, Springdale, Fayetteville, and Rogers brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars through economic development projects with their respective cities. Bentonville, Springdale, Fayetteville, and Rogers spent $615,000 in taxpayer money on economic development projects overseen by their chambers in 2015 alone.
The use of taxpayer money, with no tangible proof of return, resulted in a 2013 lawsuit against the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Little Rock Alliance, and the North Little Rock Economic Development Corp. The suit was ruled on in 2015 after multiple hearings before Pulaski Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce, who ultimately found such contracts unconstitutional.
The results from that case followed in the creation of a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, which allowed Chambers across the state to continue to make these economic development contracts, though with more oversight and guidance from the government.
The public approved the constitutional amendment by an overwhelming majority. The Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce has for its part complied with the state’s current laws while seeking a contract with the City of Mountain Home and it has no past ties to any of the lawsuits that took place back in 2013.
With that said, many of the amendment’s most vocal supporters were convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks years after the amendment became law. Some of these individuals include former State Senator Jon Woods, who was sentenced to 18 years for a fraud case. In that case, Woods directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District to award $600,000 of government general improvement funds to two non-profit entities. Former State Representative Micah Neal was also involved in the case.
Both men took $200,000 in bribes from members of both non-profits. Other legislatures who advocated for the amendment, including Jake Files and Jeremy Hutchinson, were also later arrested for wire fraud and money laundering in other cases.
While these individuals did break the law, their crimes have nothing to do with the Chamber’s current proposal.
Pugsley’s full response can be seen below.
“As the Chamber faces criticism related to the economic development proposals presented to the City Council and the Quorum Court, I felt it was important to respond, not out of defensiveness, but in an attempt to uplift and support our local elected officials. The Mountain Home City Council and the Baxter County Quorum Court are both filled with duly elected individuals who have the best interest of our area and its citizens in mind. I have read several social media posts and emails this week that question these officials’ integrity with no evidence of wrongdoing, which is unacceptable. Likewise, the Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors is filled with individuals who love this community and choose to promote it at every turn. Suggesting that these individuals are corrupt because they have chosen to show support for local economic development is absurd.
I read a blog post that suggested these proposed partnerships are illegal and have a nefarious motivation. That is untrue, and the situation the writer compared us to happened under a different set of laws. In 2016, the law changed to require more transparency with regard to these economic development partnerships. This blog also claimed that tourism is not economic development. Tourism is, in fact, economic development, and it is insulting to all those in our area whose work relates to our booming tourism industry.
The bottom line is this: If awarded these funds, these contracts will be for one year. At the end of the year, the North Central Arkansas Chamber Foundation Board will have to show measurable results from the previous year’s work and ask for approval for another year-long contract. This isn’t a long-term commitment. There absolutely will be accountability, and to suggest that our local government bodies would hand off taxpayer dollars without the expectation of transparency and accountability is insulting and disappointing. Also insulting is the idea that I am simply giving myself a raise and paying for my schooling with taxpayer money. I never thought I would have to justify my love for learning and furthering my education to people I have never met or talked with.
No matter how this situation shakes out, The Mountain Home Area Chamber of Commerce will continue serving our nearly 600 members and promoting our area for everyone’s benefit. But the fact remains that a partnership with the city and county would further our work and allow for real, long-term sustainable growth for this area.”