Gwinnett contribution to Chamber spent on salaries

Gwinnett County taxpayers spent more than $400,000 last year on the salaries, taxes and benefits of four chamber of commerce employees, to whom the county has largely outsourced its economic development efforts since 2007.

That was the bulk of the county’s $500,000 contribution in 2012 to Partnership Gwinnett, the economic development arm of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

The $95,000 not used for salaries was spent on things including event sponsorships, marketing, speaker fees and a “strategic leadership” trip to Austin, Texas, according to records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Gwinnett’s approach to funding economic development through the chamber of commerce is different from Cobb and DeKalb counties, and has landed it in Gwinnett Superior Court.

Sabrina Smith, chairwoman of the citizen watchdog group Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that Partnership Gwinnett has commingled public and private funds since forming in 2007 and illegally rejected her request for records that would shed light on how the public funds were spent.

Smith initially filed her suit against the county and the chamber. She has since added Gwinnett Public Schools, because the district has been chipping in about $150,000 per year to Partnership Gwinnett.

Partnership Gwinnett officials voluntarily provided the newspaper with records showing how the county money was spent last year. And during an interview earlier this week, Nick Masino, Partnership Gwinnett’s senior vice president, provided the AJC with a list of contributions from other public entities — amounting to about $85,000 from nine cities in 2012.

Masino also said the Gwinnett Convention and Visitor’s Bureau added a $100,000 contribution last year, and three community improvement districts kicked in a combined $75,000.

But Craig Brown, the chamber’s chief financial officer, declined to say how much of Partnership Gwinnett’s total budget the public money accounts for because “we’re not subject to open records.”

“I spend 100 percent of my time working on Partnership Gwinnett strategy, which is aligned with organizations throughout the community, nonprofit, public, for-profit,” Masino said. “It’s all with the goal of recruiting, expanding and keeping businesses here in Gwinnett County.”

Smith said the chamber’s accounting for public dollars spent last year still leaves a lot of questions. She and her attorney, Chris McClurg, say they think the chamber has lobbied for ballot initiatives, such as the statewide transportation sales tax voters rejected last year, and participates in other political activities for which public dollars can’t legally be used.

“Nick Masino wears two hats,” Smith said. “He works for Partnership Gwinnett and he works for the chamber. Does he lobby? It’s nothing but a shell game.”

This year, Partnership Gwinnett has created a Public Funding Entity so public and private funds will be separated for accounting. Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said it is a good idea for transparency.

The county has yet to make its contribution for 2013 because it is still negotiating the terms of its contract with Partnership Gwinnett.

But Nash said she is sold on the approach because she thinks the public-private merger is the type of “holistic” strategy businesses want to see, and makes for a “powerful” pitch.

Smith says the PFE, and the chamber’s accounting for county money in 2012, are positive steps for taxpayers, but “it doesn’t wipe out how they used the money” since 2007.

“We still need to know how those funds were spent,” she said.

Cobb and DeKalb each have their own economic development departments. Gwinnett also has an office of Planning and Development, which is responsible for a range of services but doesn’t play a significant role in marketing or business recruiting.

Instead, Gwinnett maintains a small staff to track and analyze economic impacts and recommend inducement packages.

In Cobb, $5,500 of county tax dollars went to its chamber for its annual corporate membership dues last year. The county spent $359,000 on its Office of Economic Development.

DeKalb County gave nothing to its chamber in 2012 but spent $750,000 on its Office of Economic Development. Luz Borrero, deputy chief operating officer for development in DeKalb, said the county is working on an intergovernmental agreement with the county’s independent Development Authority, which helps fund projects by issuing Industrial Revenue Bonds.

Borrero said the agreement will make the authority an economic development arm of the county.

Masino said his organization is still waiting for the county and the schools to name their representatives to the seven-member board that will oversee the PFE. But chief financial officer Brown said not much will change in the day-to-day operations at Partnership Gwinnett.

“We’ll still be using public and private funds to execute the (economic development) strategy,” Brown said. “What Nick and his team do every day at work, there won’t be any change. This is just a way to isolate those public dollars and report … how those dollars are being spent.”