The county Board of Commissioners appears committed to pulling the plug on COMtech, the 11-year-old economic effort that while never becoming the industrial park that was envisioned, is a viable business complex and a lure when trying to snag new industry.
The commissioners cut COMtech’s funding request by more than half for the current fiscal year, doing so as they managed to find enough money to give themselves a raise while also dumping an additional $80,000 into their discretionary funds.
The commissioners have now officially turned their back on what was once their plum, where they invested about $4 million for the land and a promise of a parking deck beside the county courthouse. They got the land at what is generally regarded as an inflated price, but the parking deck is yet to rise from the asphalt — and we feel safe predicting that will never happen. So if COMtech dries up, that failure belongs to the county Board of Commissioners.
COMtech, while falling short of the lofty expectations, today boasts about $90 million in investment and 1,000 people travel each day to work there. Not bad. But any efforts to recruit more business to COMtech, which we know are ongoing but complicated by the economy, have been torpedoed by the county’s action, so those numbers are likely to stagnate if not shrink.
All this means that there is only enough money to pay Ken Windley, the former county manager and now the executive director of COMtech, for 13 hours a week, although he has pledged to work 20. Too many businesses at COMtech aren’t paying for the services they receive, a problem Windley inherited and is trying to fix. That is the reason COMtech has depended increasingly on county funding.
Things usually happen the way we are told privately they will, so look for Windley to move onto other opportunities; there is demand for people with his record and resume. COMtech, we predict, will eventually fall under the direction of the Robeson County Office of Economic Development, which is managed by Greg Cummings, giving the county’s No. 1 economic recruiter other stuff to worry about.
Before the commissioners adopted the budget for the current fiscal year, Windley submitted a request to their board for $196,000 in funding. It was Commissioner Raymond Cummings who, perhaps anxious to save the owner of a $100,000 home $2 a year in property taxes, suggested that figure be reduced to $96,000, a deal that was already done because these things are orchestrated that way.
Cummings became a county commissioner in 1996, which is, not coincidentally, about the time that salaries and benefits began ballooning. He has sat in the back room as the commissioners have steadily increased their pay to the fourth highest in the state and built a pyramid of benefits to enrich themselves and their families by hiding their profiteering in the budget.
The reality is that fully funding COMtech makes sense from an economic point of view; the money that requires is a drop in the ocean that is the county’s budget. The additional money that the commissioners gave themselves for discretionary spending this year, $80,000, and their combined raise, $4,800, would have been plenty to keep COMtech fully functioning.
That is the bed the commissioners have made themselves: When you reward yourself so handsomely, you lack the moral authority to cut elsewhere, especially to economic development in a county desperate for jobs.