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County Council makes changes
By Pat Andrews
posted Jan 4, 2013 - 7:55:45am
Changes are afoot that will affect the taxpayer-approved ECHO fund, and not everyone is pleased.
The fund, supported by a special property tax of one-fifth of a mill, provides funds for capital projects in the four "ECHO" areas: environmental, cultural, historic and outdoor recreation.
At the Dec. 20 meeting of the Volusia County Council, the county staff proposed several changes to the program, and the County Council approved them.
First, Deputy County Manager Mary Anne Connors suggested extending the latest ECHO application cycle. The cycle would have ended in November, but the extension will give the county staff time to work with newly elected County Council members coming aboard in January, and new ECHO committee members, who will be appointed in March. An ECHO workshop will be scheduled.
The council voted unanimously to extend the cycle until May 1, but not without some hesitation.
County Manager Jim Dinneen said it's needed.
"It gives us a little more time to work with new council members," he said.
It will also delay the award of ECHO funds.
Council Member Pat Northey said she "reluctantly" agreed to the May 1 date, because of the appointment process to the ECHO board. She made a motion to extend the application cycle until May 1, stipulating that the delay was so that there could be a workshop with the new ECHO board members.
The ECHO Advisory Board reviews grant applications and makes recommendations on them to the County Council.
Currently, the Volusia ECHO program provides more than $3.5 million a year in grants, backed by a property-tax assessment of 20 cents for every $1,000 of property value.
Applicants must be local 501(c)(3) organizations or local governments. ECHO provides 50 percent in matching funds; the award recipients must provide the other half.
In addition to lengthening the current ECHO cycle, there will be another change. ECHO, currently under the direction of Program Coordinator Margaret Hodge, will move to Community Services, under Director Dave Byron, and Tim Baylie, director of Parks, Recreation and Culture for the county.
Hodge will be needed for "other things" and will be transferred to the county's coastal division, with appreciation for her 10 years of service to ECHO, Deputy County Manager Connors said.
Changes inspire suspicion about county intentions
The changes, made without talking to ECHO board members, don't sit well with former ECHO Advisory Board Chairman Gary Libby, who served in that position for three terms.
"The board has strong feelings about being left out of every decision, especially those that affect them," he said.
The county staff's compilation, in early 2012, of a list of beachfront properties that the county might acquire with ECHO funds is one of the moves that left board members feeling bypassed.
Libby met with Connors in the spring, and asked her to come to the Advisory Board to talk about why water access and off-beach parking were priorities. Libby said he assured her the ECHO board would "consider every single grant."
But, Connors declined, saying the county staff didn't have time or interest in the ECHO board's opinion — property prices were dropping, and the county needed to act quickly.
Libby said County Manager Dinneen wants all the ECHO money controlled by county staff, and that was not ECHO's intended purpose.
Libby, who was one of ECHO's strongest proponents, said when he and other supporters spent a year in 2000, going "throughout Volusia County, explaining the pros and cons of ECHO … we never envisioned the County Council taking first, in 2004, $1 million off the top to fund the county's trails program, then taking $2 million off the top to fund a land-buying program."
People don't realize that the county is taking $3 million of nearly $5 million a year for its own projects and leaving very little for others, he said. Plus, Libby said, the county "has the audacity" to apply for $300,000-$400,000 more per grant cycle for other projects.
"It's a very unfair move on the part of the county," Libby said.
He said every city in the county has meaningful projects on the drawing boards, and nonprofits have been counting on the funds as well.
"I know not-for-profits have been saving for years to match ECHO," Libby said.
According to county figures, since the first cycle of funding in 2002, ECHO has paid more than $54.7 million in grants.
The County of Volusia has been the biggest recipient, receiving $19.74 million of that money, followed by municipal governments, which got $18.82 million in ECHO funds. Nonprofit organizations got $16.14 million in ECHO funds.
Matching funds have been a sore point for Libby and other critics.
ECHO was set up to provide 50-50 matching funds, with private foundations and trusts providing half the money and the county providing the other half for its approved ECHO projects. The 50-50 match is required for non-county projects.
The county does not intend to have to provide matching funds for any of its projects, Libby said.
He said the county manager and staff will say there is no need for the advisory board to review proposed projects, and will put all the money in parks and recreation, to be administered by county staff with the final say-so by the County Council.
"That takes it out of the sunshine," Libby said, and makes ECHO a bureaucratic funding source for the county, for projects such as paving roads to county parks.
And, Libby said, it increases the future cost of government, because the county will pay to maintain the new infrastructure, instead of not-for-profit groups or municipalities.
"It was never envisioned as a public-works program for county government," Libby said.
Current ECHO Advisory Board Member Jeffrey Ault said the advisory board was created by resolution in 2001 to oversee review of ECHO applications, make recommendations to the County Council, and "promote a fair and objective distribution of Volusia ECHO Program proceeds to eligible and viable entities," as Resolution 2001-70 states.
Another paragraph of the resolution states that the county manager shall assign appropriate personnel to provide administrative support to the board.
"When the Advisory Board is ignored or sidestepped by county staff, it is a disservice to the taxpayers of Volusia County," Ault said in an email response to The Beacon.
"The ECHO Advisory Panel should be making recommendations to the County Council, not unidentified county staff who have no accountability to the taxpayer," he added.
Unless and until the County Council disbands the ECHO program or its Advisory Board, the process set in place deserves to be respected, Ault said.
And, whatever changes are made to the ECHO program, "It needs to be transparent," he said.
Both County Manager Dinneen and Deputy County Manager Connors were on vacation and unavailable to speak about the matter.
Community Services Director Dave Byron, under whose purview the ECHO program now falls, said, "There's no desire on the part of county staff to do anything but comply with the County Council."
"I think all the County Council has decided to do is just stop and take a look at where we are, and see if there are opportunities to change the program based on current needs and the evolution of the program," he said.
Byron said the great majority of ECHO applications received this year are from governments, including the county, for park-type projects, and Byron will ask if that's the direction ECHO should go.
"The ECHO board will be completely involved in the process," he said, and, "This whole thing will be discussed in a workshop."
One thing is for sure: ECHO-watchers will attend the workshop.
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