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The Columbia County Economic Development Corp. is again facing funding questions from the County Board’s Finance Committee.

When Executive Director Cheryl Fahrner presented the organization’s 2019 budget request Thursday, committee member Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville praised her for seeking no increase over this year’s $121,070.

But the economic development group still gets all of its funding from Columbia County’s property tax revenue and its offices are located on the second floor of the county’s Administration Building at 112 E. Edgewater St.

Unless the organization locates other sources for 25 to 50 percent of its funding by 2020, Pufahl said, “I will not be able to vote for this budget.”

Committee member James Foley of the town of Leeds said he has asked the group for years to find non-county revenue sources, such as contributions from businesses.

Fahrner said she has established a goal of attaining 20 percent of the organization’s funding from non-county sources by 2020.

One of the things that Fahrner said is standing in the way of attaining that goal is the lack of an administrative assistant to deal with clerical duties.

“I’ve been a fundraiser before, but it’s a full-time job,” Fahrner said.

Even if she could devote time to raising money, Fahrner said it is unlikely she could get more than 20 percent of the organization’s operating money from non-county sources.

Fahrner took over the position March 1, which had been held for 25 years by Nancy Elsing.

During last year’s budget process, when Elsing had announced her intent to retire, the Finance Committee proposed holding half of the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation’s 2018 funding in escrow, and requiring County Board action to release the remaining funds after the first half of the year. That measure was turned back before the County Board adopted the budget in November.

Foley said at the time that holding part of the funding in escrow was intended to motivate the organization’s board of directors – composed mainly of representatives from various business sectors – to seek other sources of funding.

Until 2013, the economic development group got only half its funding from the county, with the rest coming from population-based annual assessments of participating Columbia County municipalities. The organization moved to full funding from the county because not all municipalities paid the assessment, and some paid less than the amount determined by their population.

County Comptroller Lois Schepp asked why a $42,000 payment that the entity recently received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture couldn’t be applied to its operations, to cover the cost of time spent on managing the economic development organization’s revolving loan fund.

The fund, whose money comes from the USDA, is used to assist new and existing businesses with loans at below-market rates, with the repayments and interest going back into the fund for future loans.

Fahrner said USDA officials had told her to set aside the payment for possible use as a local match for future grants that the economic development organization might seek.

The Columbia County Economic Development Corp.’s activities focus on business retention and development. It also oversees the Columbia County Visitors Bureau and the Columbia County Silent Sports Trail Committee.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

Portage Daily Register Reporter