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Counties on the hook for debts of South Jersey Economic Development District |

Discussion of the district’s future has dragged on for months since its financial problems were brought to light earlier this year. Audits hadn’t been completed in three years; NextGen contractors hadn’t been paid. Meanwhile, longtime Executive Director Gordon Dahl’s salary had increased by more than 40 percent in six years.

The board voted Dahl out, after which the magnitude of the agency’s problems become more apparent. Nearly $150,000 was still owed on an air traffic control simulator that was supposed to be financed through grants already received. Nearly $400,000 was missing from revolving loan funds, inappropriately used for the agency’s operating expenses.

Board members say they were unaware of it all, and assumed Dahl — one of three paid employees of the district — was handling the district’s business appropriately. Meanwhile, the district had never even compiled an annual budget.

“I would ask that we stay to thing that are moving forward. Let’s not go back,” board Chairman Len Desiderio said at the beginning of the district’s latest meeting, which included a two-hour executive session, now common at district gatherings. “We know how we got here. We know what caused us to get here. Let’s move forward.”

Because the member counties will be responsible for the district’s debt regardless, it’s likely that the district will remain intact, officials say. The district is also bound to pay back nearly $400,000 owed to the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture from money wrongfully removed from the district’s loan programs. Board members met with representatives of USEDA and USDA this month and say they were told that both of the federal organizations want the district to continue.

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By Jennifer Bogdan