By James Beaty
McAlester City councilors voted five-to-one Tuesday night to pass a resolution which would bring the city’s economic development services to City Hall — shortly after Ward 3 Councilor Travis Read said he hoped the vote would be unanimous.
That means an end to the city contracting out city tax dollars to outside economic development entities, such as MPower Economic Development, previously known as the McAlester Economic Development Service.
Following the resolution vote, city councilors didn’t vote on the next item on the agenda, which would have been a contract put forth by the MPower Board demanding $400,000 for the upcoming 2013-2014 Fiscal Year.
That’s because MPower withdrew the contract prior to the council meeting and issued a statement saying it’s ceasing its McAlester operations.
MPower’s current contract with the city for economic development services is set to expire June 30.
Joining Read in voting in favor of his resolution to cease the contracting out of economic development services and voting to make economic development a division at City Hall were Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith, Ward 2 Councilor John Titsworth, Ward 4 Councilor Robert Karr and Mayor Steve Harrison.
Ward 5 Councilor Buddy Garvin cast the lone “no” vote.
Only six of the seven possible votes were cast, because Ward 6 City Councilor Sam Mason did not attend the meeting.
“I feel it’s time for the city council to be engaged in some open and honest discussion about economic development,” Read said, as discussion of the item began.
Read said he felt it’s time for the city to cease “shopping it out” and bring it to City Hall.
Tistsworth said he agreed.
“I think we should bring it into the city. I’ve thought that for some time,” Titsworth said.
Garvin made a pitch for the McAlester City Council to supervise any new economic development director hired by the city.
“I think it needs to be under the city council,” Garvin said, adding that he didn’t think City Manager Pete Stasiak has the expertise in that department.
Stasiak has a background in economic development.
Garvin then referred to someone who would be interested in buying property in McAlester for a new business or industry from local landowners and how property prices might increase for the buyer if the local landowners knew someone wanted the property for a potential new business or industry.
“Every Tom, Dick or Harry who has property around where he wanted to buy — that would be a disadvantage to him,” Garvin said.
“I don’t feel like if something was brought to us, it would be ignored or bypassed,” Garvin said.
That’s when Read referred to the McAlester City Charter.
“I’m not sure we could do that under the charter,” Read said. “The city charter is specific about who can work for the council.”
Those include the city manager, the city clerk and the city attorney. The reason for placing other workers under the supervision of the city manager is to keep city councilors from ordering city employees around and bypassing the city manager to become involved in the day-to-day operations of the city.
Read asked City Attorney Joe Ervin for his take on the matter.
“I think it might require a charter change,” Ervin said. That, in turn, would require a vote of the people.
“The city is free to contract with other agencies, but not to employ them directly,” Ervin said.
Garvin then responded to Read’s statement.
“After realizing that, I’m sure the city charter doesn’t allow that to happen,” Garvin said.
Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith wanted to know how the city would handle its own economic development division.
“It would be a city office by itself,” Stasiak said. “It would require a director. It would report directly to me, because of confidentiality.”
Stasiak said he’s seen economic development from different points of view, because he’s worked in economic development with a city and with a board.
“It does need to be a segregated department,” Stasiak said.
Smith said he wanted to clear something up. He asked Stasiak if he would be involved in the day-to-day running of the office. Stasiak said he would not.
Karr interjected a few comments, saying it’s not easy to bring a 100-person plant to McAlester.
Garvin asked what it would cost to bring an economic development director to McAlester.
Stasiak said it would probably cost in the $75,000-to-$80,000 range.
Garvin said a director would have to have a staff and he also asked about the cost of benefits, such as insurance.
“The number we look at for all city employees is 33 percent,” Stasiak said.
Titsworth indicated he did not want to delay the vote on the matter.
“I feel we should go ahead and do this,” he said.
Mayor Harrison said economic development is one of the most controversial matters in which a city can be involved, because it means private companies can benefit from public dollars.
He also issued what some could construe as a response to MPower’s stinging criticism of Stasiak and others at City Hall.
“I believe every person up here has a strong commitment to economic development,” Harrison said.
“Every person up here wants to see the city grow.”
“I do believe it’s time for a change,” Harrison said. “Because of events in the past few days, change has been forced upon us anyway,” Harrison said — a reference to the MPower Board’s statement that it’s ceasing its McAlester operations.
“I support this change,” Harrison said.
That’s when Read said he would like to see the resolution passed to make economic development a new division of the city, and to for the city to cease contracting out economic development services.
“I would like to see it pass with a unanimous vote to show support for Mr. Stasiak,” Read said.
The resolution then passed with the five “yes” votes and Garvin’s “no” vote.
Although the council didn’t vote on the $400,000 proposed contract put forth by MPower and signed by MPower Board members Brad Rutledge and Steve Woodham, Read read his report on earlier negotiations into the record.
After a city council subcommittee consisting of Read, Garvin and Mason had recommended funding MPower at $150,000 this year, MPower responded with the $400,000 proposal — along with a 20 percent increase for the second and third years.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.
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