At her final meeting as chair of the Kent County Commission, Sandi Frost Parrish raised a concern with members of the county’s Executive Committee that may change how the county communicates with the community.
Parrish said factually incorrect information about how the county operates has been presented to the public, and what bothers her about this information is it can generate false beliefs among residents. The most recent incident involved a press release issued to the public a few weeks ago.
“We can’t stop a press release being put out by a group with special interests,” she said. “They have a way to gin people up, and we’re kind of defenseless.”
Parrish acknowledged the county normally doesn’t respond to releases it sees as containing incorrect information, but she asked committee members whether the county should start responding.
“We can, but it’s more of a defensive posture when we do this,” said Kent County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.
“It’s hard to respond point-by-point to false information in a press release,” added Commissioner Jim Saalfeld.
The most recent example of what the committee was discussing came from the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, which accused the county of being fiscally reckless when commissioners sold 44 tax-foreclosed properties to the Kent County Land Bank Authority last summer.
The alliance claimed the county’s general fund was $955,000 short of being in balance when the sale was made, and the general fund could have had another $1.4 million in revenue had those properties been sold at auction rather than to the land bank. The county didn’t automatically respond to those accusations, which were contained in a KCTA press release.
But when the Business Journal asked, county officials said the budget wasn’t running a deficit and is expected to end the year either balanced or with a small surplus. In addition, revenue from the auction doesn’t go to the county’s general fund. It goes to the Treasurer’s office to pay off the short-term notes the office borrows and uses to buy tax-foreclosed properties from the municipalities. So having more properties sold at the public sale couldn’t have closed the budget’s revenue gap even if one existed.
Also, the properties the county sold to the land bank didn’t have a market value of $1.4 million. The figure represented the properties’ value to the land bank. That amount included what the land bank paid for and invested into the properties and what it projected as being the final sales figure.
There also isn’t a guarantee the 44 properties would have generated $1.4 million in revenue, even if the properties would have gone to the auction.
This year’s public sale was the most successful the county has had in roughly the last five years. Revenue from it reached about $2.4 million, which included the $420,000 the land bank paid for the parcels it bought. The Treasurer’s office sold 300 of the 309 tax-foreclosed properties offered at the auction.
Parrish said when the county occasionally has responded to false information, the job normally has fallen to the county’s administrative staff, which is headed by Delabbio, and having to do that has taken time away from their regular duties. Still, she felt the county needs to become more proactive in getting its information out.
“We don’t do enough to promote ourselves,” said Delabbio, echoing a comment Convention and Arena Authority and former county commission chairman Steven Heacock made a few weeks earlier.
“I would love to have a full-time communications person,” Delabbio added. “I don’t know if the resources are available now to do that.”
What the county does have, though, is an agreement with Wondergem Consulting, a public relations firm. Delabbio said he would review that contract to see if the firm could provide some help.
Parrish felt a response from the county was needed now more than ever because of the popularity social media has gained. But sometimes it’s been a communication stream that allows anyone to anonymously say anything without facts or knowledge.
“The ability to put out misinformation is easier now than it ever was, and we need to do something about it.”