Erie County Council Approves Economic Development Merger Cell

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Erie County Executive Brenton Davis, who has sought to make economic development a centerpiece of his administration, now cites an Erie County Council vote as evidence.

On Tuesday, council members narrowly passed a proposal by Davis to revive an economic development department within the county executive’s office.

The department, which has existed for years within the county government but has largely gone unfunded due to other entities taking the lead in economic development, will now comprise three positions: a director, a deputy director and an office manager.

The Council voted 4-3 to fund the positions for at least two years, using $280,000 in federal COVID relief and an additional $50,000 from a grant from the National Counties Association.

A bit of context:Erie County Executive Brenton Davis and Council Democrats clash over tracing bailout funds

The department, which Davis calls a “fusion cell,” represents a key part of his regional economic vision. Not only will it track the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds in the county, but it will aim to collaborate with other counties and find opportunities to invest, leverage, and maximize returns from ARPA funds. .

It will also put the county government firmly in the driver’s seat of the county’s economic development priorities, helping to guide the work of other entities such as the Redevelopment Authority, the Land Bank and the Chamber and Growth Partnership.

As Davis said during an appearance Wednesday at the Manufacturing and Business Association in Erie, the county government should be the “master of the symphony” when it comes to economic development projects.

“We don’t intend to play tubas or drums,” he said. “We need experts to do what they do. But it’s my goal with this Department of Economic Development and the County Executive’s Office to put things on one page.”

The measure received support from Republican board members Brian Shank, Ellen Schauerman and Samuel Bayle, as well as Democrat Jim Winarski as a swing vote.

Davis called the result a “bipartisan victory.” Democratic board members Mary Rennie, Andre Horton and Terry Scutella, who voted against the proposal, say the idea is still vague and risky.

An “obvious risk for taxpayers”

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Rennie argued that making county government the leader in economic development posed a “clear risk to ratepayers.”

Not only would taxpayers have to foot the bill for the fusion cell once federal funds run out, but the county could find itself in a costly legal dilemma, she said.

“If the county makes a decision in the name of economic development and insists on something going forward and we get sued later for it, then aren’t we responsible for whatever comes of it?” Rennie asked. “I believe we are.”

Rennie added that Davis’ merger cell and his overall economic vision, which involves unofficial multi-county task forces and nascent plans to tap into the $6 trillion Great Lakes economy, still lacked specifics. and were not compelling enough to commit funds to ARPA.

Davis’ economic vision:Erie County Executive Brenton Davis plans to lead economic development

Erie County Council is pictured here February 2, 2022.

County Council attorney Tom Talarico agreed and urged council members on Tuesday to file the proposal.

“We don’t have enough information to determine whether the money requested by the administration will be spent on ARPA purposes,” he said. “And it is illegal to spend ARPA money to establish economic development offices to earn money from the future and build relationships with other entities in the Great Lakes region.”

County Administration Director Doug Smith, speaking on behalf of Davis on Tuesday, said the county’s ARPA consultant – Witt O’Brien’s, a firm specializing in risk assessment and management – said that the fusion cell fell under ARPA’s new expense guidelines.

Horton, however, said ARPA funds should be focused on those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe the No. 1 job of county government should always be social services,” Horton said, pointing to the county’s gun violence and opioid issues, as well as lack of investment in the homeless. and young people. “It looks like we’re choosing to put people last at the behest of corporations and big business.”

ARPA rebudgeting

By June, Erie County is expected to receive about $26 million in federal stimulus assistance, the second half of $52 million in ARPA funding provided to the county.

Davis, since February, has asked the board to rebudget that $26 million, insisting the funds shouldn’t have been allocated in the 2022 budget by the previous board in December, considering three board members, as well as former county executive Kathy Dahlkemper, were outgoing.

Davis plans to withdraw funds from ARPA:Davis seeks to rebudget Erie County’s 2022 U.S. bailout funds

While the board has indicated it needs more details before canceling ARPA’s spending plan – which was unanimously approved by the board last year – Tuesday’s vote to approve the fusion center could signal a warming of the board majority to Davis’ economic ambitions.

As such, Democrats are concerned that Davis is more focused on maximizing profits than using ARPA funds in the areas of health, human services, diversity and equity.

“I’d rather put a bag of groceries and a half gallon of milk on a single parent’s table so their kids can go to bed at night with a full stomach – that’s all I want to do,” said Scutella. “I don’t want to take $5 million and try to make $50 million out of it. I’d probably be dead before that happened. But I can do something now.”

AJ Rao can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.

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