Cumberland County’s economic development efforts are now in the hands of a quasi-independent government agency.

The Cumberland County Improvement Authority took over the duties March 1, a change proponents say should improve economic development efforts while saving county-government money.

Under the change, county Economic Development Director James Watson moves to the improvement authority, which will pay his salary as the agency’s director of development. County government will also pay the improvement authority $30,000 annually for, according to the contract between the two entities, “economic development together with secretarial and support services ... as needed-requested when possible at no cost.”

The contract was approved last month by a 5-2 vote of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Republican Freeholders Tom Sheppard and James Sauro voted against the measure. They argued the move improperly takes economic development out of the hands of county government.

The five affirmative votes were all cast by Democratic freeholders.

Economic development is crucial in a county that traditionally ranks near or at the bottom of the list in terms of a viable economy.

Cumberland County’s 10.5 percent unemployment rate was the second highest of any county in the state in December, according to state Department of Labor and Workforce Development statistics. The figure was exceeded only by Cape May County’s 13 percent unemployment rate, the statistics show, and was more than the state average of 7.2 percent.

Cumberland County’s median household income averaged $51,530 from 2008 through 2012, about $21,100 less than the statewide figure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 16 percent of county residents lived below the poverty level during that time, census information shows.

The county is proposing a series of major projects linked to economic development. They include a full-time technical high school and a new Workforce Investment Board headquarters on the Cumberland County College campus, and a county government office building in downtown Bridgeton. The improvement authority plays a significant role in those projects, especially related to funding.

Cumberland County is not the only county in South Jersey planning to better utilize its improvement authority.

Atlantic County officials say they want to boost the power of the Atlantic County Improvement Authority in major development projects.

The Atlantic County authority has already helped develop projects such as the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City Convention Center. The agency has most recently been used in connection with government funding for various projects.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.