Moore County & FTI: Tax money to support private business deals?



After watching Fenton Wilkinson’s presentation (fast forward to about the 30 minute mark)  to the Moore County Commissioners last night, I am convinced that I want him in my corner if I am ever forced to plead my case in front of some authority.  Wilkinson, executive director of Sandhills Farm to Table, convinced all five Republican commissioners — three of whom are very conservative — to agree to spend five figures worth of tax dollars on something that may or may not happen.

Wilkinson was seeking the county’s support for funding a five-month long feasibility study for a proposed Farm-to-Institution initiative.  Wilkinson explained that FTI would serve as a collective for local farmers to do business with large buyers like The Pinehurst Resort and Pine Needles.

A few thoughts came to mind while listening to this:

  1. Tax money for private business transactions.   Why should taxpayers be hit up for funding something that facilitates two private entities doing business?  Why do taxpayers need to be involved in transactions between The Pinehurst Resort and a group of local farmers? 
  2. Who cares where stuff is grown?   Wilkinson insisted that there will be a lot of PR and economic benefits from being able to claim all of your produce is locally grown.  Really?  How many of you out there care whether your lettuce is grown in Moore County or Hoke County or Montgomery County  or Johnston County? 
  3. Tourism benefits? Let’s face it.  People come here to shop and to golf.  Are we expected to believe that launching this initiative will bring a wave of new tourists seeking to buy locally-grown produce?
  4. Opening up new opportunities for local farmers.  Wilkinson said the FTI cooperative would make it easier for local farmers to be able to sell to Moore County Schools and Sandhills Community College.  He said the state requires a special certification that is tough for small producers to come by.  Question:  Instead of gobbling up a bunch of newly-appropriated government money, why not simply petition our local legislators to push for regulation changes in Raleigh?
  5. A rush to judgement?   Commissioner Nick Picerno, the board chairman, started off asking what the hurry was.  He wanted to know if the “group needed the money NOW.  Wilkinson said NO, but the ball was already rolling.  We heard that the FTI had already applied for several government grants.  We heard during Wilkinson’s presentation details about a proposed new facility for participating farmers. Where is THAT money coming from?  Will we, the taxpayers, be put on the hook for even more money to support this business arrangement between private interests? 

Then the talk moved to helping the “poor farmers” who have been rocked by the recession.  Talking about saving farmers is right up there with saving puppies.  How do you oppose that?  My #2 county government mole, who was in attendance at the meeting, had this wry observation:

“I know a lot of farmers.  None of them are starving.  My take on this — and things like it — is that, if you can’t make money doing what you’re doing, go do something else.  Don’t go looking for a handout from the government.”

Instead of delaying to see if there was any money in the budget to FUND THIS, commissioner Jimmy Melton moved to appropriate $15,000 toward a feasibility study for FTI.   The motion passed unanimously.  The presentation left a lot of questions open. Does this commit the county to coughing up more money toward FTI?  Who is paying for this proposed facility?  Does this open the door to government getting involved in other private business transactions between local businesses?