County ends funding for Hamilton Hometowns

STANHOPE — One agenda item generated lengthy discussion, debate, and at times disagreement among board members, county supervisors, and the dozen people who attended Tuesday evening’s meeting of the board of Hamilton Hometowns.

At issue was county funding for the group, originally called SEED (Support Enriching Economic Development), which was started 30 years ago to support economic development in Hamilton County. Member towns pay a per-capita assessment, and funding also comes from the county’s general fund. Although all nine towns in the county were originally members of SEED, currently only Ellsworth, Jewell, Stanhope, and Stratford are members. The town of Kamrar recently joined the organization, and its two representatives to the board were at Tuesday’s meeting.

Supervisor David Young has chaired the group and led the meetings since 2000. He emphasized that all three county supervisors help finance this organization. Supervisors Doug Bailey and Dan Campidilli attended Tuesday’s meeting.

“For 30 years now, SEED has been an extremely active and vital part of the county, and many good things have come from that,” Bailey said after Young opened the meeting. “But for some time now we have talked about if this is really the best use of general fund tax dollars — that come from the entire county — to be used just in the southern part of the county.

“We feel it is fair and vital to let this group know that on January 1, 2019, we will redirect those dollars,” Bailey said, adding that the issue is not one of large towns versus small towns, but rather “simply changing the way we have been operating. Recently we have wanted to have a county economic director to help us with opportunities that come by, someone who would be a county employee.”

The supervisors now allocate about $55,000 annually for Hamilton Hometowns, with $16,500 of that coming from the rural basic fund from only rural people and $38,500 from the general fund, according to Young, who said that in the past 20 years, the supervisors have put in over $488,000 to Hamilton Hometowns.

Other funds for the Hamilton Hometowns budget are from assessments from member communities, which total about $12,000 annually. Sarah Thompson is currently the director, with her salary paid from the Hamilton Hometowns budget.

“We need a person who reports to us that we can direct, get feedback from them, and know their ideas,” Campidilli said. “One possibility is hiring a county economic director.”

“We want someone who is there every day,” agreed Bailey, “who knows what’s out there and what’s going on. This decision has been a long time coming.”

Young said that this decision was very painful for him.

“It was insinuated that all this money would go to Webster City. The fact is that Webster City has been subsidizing this group for a long time. The supervisors would like to take a new approach to economic development.”

Hamilton Hometowns board member Jessica Murray of Stanhope asked why the board wasn’t informed of the funding issue earlier.

Young also pointed out that in recent months attendance at Hamilton Hometowns board meetings has declined to the point of only four board members coming to several of those meetings, leaving him frustrated to know of continued interest and how to best lead the group.

Reactions to the announcement ran high at Tuesday’s meeting. Mellissa Roethler, president of JADE, Jewell’s development group, and a local businesswoman, said the decision will be detrimental for her community.

“Isn’t there another way to address this? Isn’t there any kind of transition we can work on?” Roethler asked.

All of the towns currently members of Hamilton Hometowns are also members of Main Street Iowa, which focuses on downtown economic development. A requirement for membership in that organization is to have a paid staff person of at least 25 hours per week. Thompson fills that role now, but that will not be possible if county funding to Hamilton Hometowns is cut. That was an issue for those in attendance.

“We cannot do Main Street without the supervisors,” said Polly Hayes of Stanhope. “We’re thriving here, and now there is nothing.”

“We have plans in Jewell for two new buildings, and that will be scrapped if we’re not in Main Street,” Roethler said. “This decision will be very detrimental for us.”

“There is plenty of money to operate as we are for more than a year,” Young told her.

“I am confused,” stated Hamilton Hometowns director Sarah Thompson. “It seems like you guys are taking away funding from everything that’s working.”

As emotions ratcheted down Tuesday evening, board member Mary Sealine of rural Stratford told the supervisors that “we’re afraid we’re going to lose our voice if we have one economic development person for the county. Let’s talk.”

The board will appoint a transition committee to work with the supervisors, who suggested a meeting with those three people in two weekss.