• Reactions Mixed To Tobacco Commission Review
  • Two state legislators from Southside who are members of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission defended its work Tuesday, while another lawmaker renewed his call for reform.

    All were speaking in response to a report issued Monday by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), which reviewed the commission’s work.

    “It is clear that significant structural changes should be made to the Tobacco Commission to make sure that these public funds are used in a responsible and accountable manner,” said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville. Armstrong is not a member of the commission.

    The Tobacco Commission was created in 1999 to disburse Virginia’s share of the settlement from a national lawsuit against cigarette makers. Since 2000, the commission has awarded $756 million in economic development and revitalization grants in 41 Virginia localities, including Henry and Patrick counties, the report found.

    Martinsville also has received funding through some of the commission’s projects.

    According to Armstrong, “the Tobacco Commission does not have a consistent process for strategically setting priorities and funding guidelines, or collecting and analyzing meaningful outcomes from the projects that are selected for funding.”

    Del. Don Merricks, who was appointed to the commission recently and began attending its meetings in January, said he had not read the full JLARC report, but he read a summary, which included the conclusion that there is no way to measure outcomes for 89 percent of 1,368 project grants by the commission over the past 11 years.

    “I think it’s unfair at this point in time to go in and look back” at the results of investments in economic development, especially in light of the national economy, he said. “After what the whole country has been through, to me it’s just a tad unfair.”

    Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, added, “If economic development was an exact science, it would be a whole lot easier to track.”

    In the economic downturn of the last decade or more and the recent recession, Merricks said without cigarettes money, there likely would have been no economic growth in the region.

    “There have been tremendous losses, no doubt about it, but look at those (companies) we brought in,” he said and cited investments that include projects such as the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre, Martinsville Speedway and others.

    “I would venture to say” none of the major economic development announcements was made without investments from the Tobacco Commission, he said.

    Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, agreed “100 percent” with Merricks. “If you look at the investments the commission has made in industrial parks, broadband and education,” localities have reaped benefits, Marshall said.

    “Part of the problem is there’s no way to quantify” the work of the commission, said Marshall, who joined the commission in January 2008. “What if we hadn’t done any of this,” he asked. “Where would we be if the Tobacco Commission didn’t exist?”

    Marshall also objected to the use of unnamed sources in the report.

    “It was almost a ‘he said, she said’” situation with the unidentified sources, Marshall said. “Why not list (the names) so we could check it out?”

    Marshall said he anticipates the commission’s executive committee will review the report “and see how we can improve. The goal is to use this money and invest it wisely. We will take this as a learning experience and hopefully try to do a better job for communities in the Tobacco Commission footprint,” he said.

    JLARC recommended the commission implement a formal process for biennially collecting input on the region’s economic development priorities, and use the information to set priorities.

    It also urged the commission to revise the strategic plan and develop region-wide economic development strategies; require all applicants to provide baseline figures, explicit and quantified outcome expectations, the methodology used to calculate outcome expectations, details on timing of expected outcomes, and a specific link to economic revitalization and the commission’s strategic plan; and conduct more site visits each year to evaluate the performance of commission funded projects.

    Armstrong said some recommendations mirror the concerns and recommendations of a 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel chaired by Gov. Gerald Baliles.

    “One third of the grants awarded by the Tobacco Commission, totaling over $15 million, have been awarded to projects with limited potential for economic revitalization,” Armstrong wrote.

    He also cited JLARC’s recommendation that economic stress in areas be taken into account when awarding funds.

    “For example, Martinsville is ineligible for Southside economic development funds, despite having the highest unemployment rate in the region,” Armstrong said.

    Legislation he introduced was aimed at increasing oversight and accountability of the Tobacco Commission, and it sought to replace legislators serving on the commission with non-legislative citizen members, Armstrong said. Both bills were defeated by the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee.

    “I hope to return to the General Assembly for the 2012 session and once again introduce legislation that will address the recommendations of both JLARC and the Blue Ribbon Panel to improve the performance and accountability of the Tobacco Commission as well as ensure continued oversight of these funds,” Armstrong said.

    Henry County Administrator Benny Summerlin said he has not yet reviewed the JLARC report, but speaking in general terms, he said, “we would be supportive of anything they can do to strengthen the program.”

    Funding from the commission already “has been very helpful to the county in developing our business parks and for providing deal-closing money for economic development” projects, Summerlin said.

    In addition, a number of other investments made by the commission, including those in education and broadband, benefit the county, he said.

    Martinsville City Manager Clarence Monday also has not yet read the report and declined to comment until he does.

    Martinsville does not have an allocation from the commission but is eligible for some funding in certain categories and in certain instances, Monday said. He added that in the past, the city has received funds for revenue-sharing projects and other efforts in which it partnered with the county.

    State Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway, who also serves on the tobacco commission, could not be reached for comment.