Tri-Agency's director is in limbo with contract uncertain

Due to a financial crisis, the Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority has closed its office and terminated nearly all of its existing contracts.

Following a closed-door meeting last week, Tri-Agency commissioners directed Executive Director Bill Renfroe to "take whatever measures necessary to go ahead and close the office." Almost all of the agency's independent contractors have received termination notices, Renfroe said. He added that his contract is the only one that hasn't been terminated yet.

The contracts will be subject to renegotiation, according to Tri-Agency Commissioner and Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan. That is where the Tri-Agency currently is with Renfroe's contract, Finigan said.

"There was an offer made to him and it's closed session stuff, so I don't want to give out too much," Finigan said. "He was given a solution and the ball's in his court."

Renfroe, who has been paid on the 26th of each month since the agency hired him in January 2009, said he has not been paid yet for October. The commission offered him a release of liability and a draft letter of separation, but Renfroe said he rejected those on the advice of his attorney. His current contract expires June 30, 2013.

"Have they given me my termination notice? Technically, no," said Renfroe, who is currently in Portland, Ore. "I don't know if I represent the Tri-Agency at this point. Certainly there's no office. The website is staying up simply because it was paid in advance."

Tri-Agency Chairman Scott Feller said he thought commissioners had terminated Renfroe's contract effective at the end of October. He declined to comment further, stating that county counsel Gretchen Stuhr could confirm if Renfroe's contract had been terminated. Stuhr could not be reached Monday.

Feller added that the Tri-Agency commission will likely hold another closed session next week to discuss its contracts.

The Tri-Agency got its start in the early 1970s as a disaster recovery agency following the 1964 tsunami. It has since gone through several incarnations and developed into a program that offers loans to low to start small businesses.

The Tri-Agency's financial woes began when it received a notice of acceleration in September in response to a missed loan repayment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA demanded repayment of the balance of a $400,000 loan. As a result, the U.S. Treasury Department can garnish any state or federal funding that is allocated to the Tri-Agency.

Discovery of an internal U.S. Treasury policy that keeps it from going after any funds in the Tri-Agency's account had commissioners breathing a small sigh of relief. This means that the Tri-Agency could continue to receive funds from the city, county and harbor district. But, according to Renfroe, those jurisdictions have not chosen to accelerate the payments they make to the agency, which keeps no reserves and doesn't have the power to levy a tax.

The agency's two other funding sources include a California Public Utilities Commission grant to bring Internet broadband to the southern part of the county and a micro-enterprise loan program, Renfroe said. Accessing those funds is difficult, however, because the rules have changed.

"While the money is still there and it's still viable, exactly how we get it ... seems to me to be a constantly changing criteria," he said. "Consequently those monies are not in the bucket yet, so to speak."

The county has already made its quarterly payment of $15,000 to the Tri-Agency, said County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina. That payment is for October through December. Sarina added that the County Board of Supervisors has yet to discuss the county's memorandum of understanding with the Tri-Agency since the agency's meeting last week.

According to Crescent City Manager Eugene Palazzo, the city allocates two equal installments of approximately $12,771 to the Tri-Agency, on July 1 and Jan. 1.

Right now commissioners are trying to figure out what the future will hold for the Tri-Agency, Feller said. It's possible that the agency will choose to work with the Visitors Bureau and the Crescent City/Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce in the future, he said, noting the Chamber is about to lose its executive director as well.

"We'll put everything on the table as to the biggest bang we can get for the public's money," Feller said. "We're also looking at working with various Native American groups. And Curry County and city of Brookings expressed interest in having an economic development specialist for this working circle that would help both communities."

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