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Council asked to consider fiscal priorities
La Grande City Council members have some tough issues to chew on before their retreat at the beginning of 2014.
Councilors met with La Grande Community and Economic Development Director Charlie Mitchell Monday night to discuss the future of the city’s economic development plan.
Mitchell went through the current economic development plan with councilors and said they have completed 21 of 30 initiatives in the past four years.
“Today we’ve gone from 20 percent accomplished to 70 percent,” Mitchell said.
Some of those initiatives include having an economic summit, which was held in April, implementing the business retention and expansion program and finding sustainable funding for La Grande Main Street through an Economic Improvement District, which has been indefinitely stalled by letters of remonstrance.
Mitchell asked the council to consider funding as they think about priorities for the next few years. Right now, 85 percent of Mitchell’s salary is drawn from the Urban Renewal Agency, while the rest comes out of the city’s general fund even though Mitchell said less than 85 percent of his time is used on Urban Renewal-related activities.
“We really cannot continue to act in this manner ethically,” Mitchell wrote to councilors in a memo.
Mitchell asked that the council consider allocating more dollars for non-Urban Renewal Agency functions or that they shift to focus more on Urban Renewal projects.
“I think 100 percent of our focus should be on job creation,” councilor John Bozarth said. “Now, how do we do that?”
Bozarth also was skeptical of Mitchell’s role in dealing with the Union County Economic Development Corp. and Main Street, saying that those entities need to handle themselves. Mitchell noted that two of the three economic development entities — Main Street and the Union County Chamber of Commerce — are at crossroads in terms of leadership. The chamber has been without an executive director since June 1. With the failure of the EID, Main Street still has no stable source of funding, which threatens the entity’s existence as members still struggle to see how it may continue.
“You can’t babysit everyone in this town,” Bozarth said. “We’ve got to utilize (Mitchell) the best that we can.”
Mayor Dan Pokorney agreed that the council should be changing priorities.
Mary Ann Miesner and Bozarth said they would be comfortable with leaving the focus on Urban Renewal Agency activities.
“We have plenty to do there,” Miesner said.
At the same time, councilors said they wanted Mitchell to have some flexibility if projects outside Urban Renewal came up.
Gary Lillard and Miesner said business retention should be a priority, too.
City Manager Robert Strope said it is “exponentially easier” to grow a business in the La Grande area than it is to start a new one.
Councilors also expressed an interest in showing a pro-business attitude from the city and working more with Eastern Oregon
Strope said Tuesday that the council will likely have another work session to talk about these issues, especially since councilors John Lackey and Jerry Sebestyen were unable to attend Monday’s meeting. Strope hopes to have a proposal together that will lay out what the city is doing now, what it may want to do differently and how that may impact the budget. Assuming there are no budget implications for the current fiscal year, Strope said the council may not take any formal actions but simply provide new guidelines for economic development.