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County kicks off budget process with full-day retreat at ACC

The outcome of this year’s property tax revaluation wasn’t the only thing that kept the county’s governing board sequestered for the better part of seven hours on Monday.

The board of commissioners also delved into a whole host of other issues during this all-day “retreat,” which its members convened at the main campus of Alamance Community College as a prelude to their deliberations about the county’s next annual budget.

During this marathon meeting, the four commissioners who attended the retreat had a chance to revisit some of the planks in the county’s strategic plan (John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, absented himself from the confab due to illness). The commissioners also reviewed their financial priorities for the county’s departments and agencies, and they took a hard look at the joint capital funding plan that they’ve previously laid out for the county, the local school system, and the community college.

The commissioners even considered an innovative new way to pay for the proposed $70 million expansion of the Judge J.B. Allen Jr. Court House – a proposal that would have them avoid a property tax increase by diverting revenue currently earmarked for the local school system’s capital needs [See separate story in this edition].

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A tactful reminder
The driving force behind each of the board’s conversations on Monday wasn’t so much the whims of the commissioners themselves as the penchants of the county’s top-ranking administrators. In fact, Monday’s retreat began with primer for the commissioners on their appropriate role in the operations of Alamance County’s government.

Alamance County’s attorney Rik Stevens, who became the county’s chief legal counsel in August, reminded the commissioners that they have direct oversight of only four employees – namely himself, the county manager, the tax administrator, and the county clerk. Stevens went on to emphasize that the county government can only function when the commissioners allow their subordinates – and, in particular, the manager – to attend to the duties with which they were entrusted.

“You guys set the precedent,” Stevens admonished the board, “You establish the goals, the priorities, and the funding, and [the manager’s] job is to implement that…Her job as your manager is, through the other employees, to make sure that is possible.”

The county attorney’s advice was echoed by Alamance County’s manager Heidi York, who ascended to her own position a month before Stevens took over the county’s legal department. York reminded the commissioners that they had hired her to serve as their go-between with the rest of Alamance County’s staff, and she urged them to take advantage of her role as a liaison rather than buttonhole lower-ranking staff members – “particularly when it affects an employee’s day-to-day workload.”

The staff’s tutorial on proper chain-of-command was apparently prompted by repeated attempts by certain commissioners to question lower-ranking staff about certain issues, or ask them for research and statistics, without, first, going through the county manager.

York also enjoined the commissioners not to overstep their authority with external agencies and organizations – even those that receive a portion of their revenue from Alamance County’s government. She zeroed in specifically on the Alamance-Burlington school system, which gets millions of dollars a year from the county but spends those funds based on parameters set by the independently-elected Alamance-Burlington school board.

“It’s a lump sum that we give them,” York went on to stress, “and they spend it as they wish.”


What’s the board’s pleasure?
Monday’s retreat wasn’t merely an opportunity for county staff members to harangue the commissioners about their proper role in the grand scheme of things. It also allowed the commissioners to share their inclinations on some of the big-picture matters that fall squarely within their domain, as construed by the county’s administrators.

In order to tease out the board’s preferences, Brian Baker, one of the county’s assistant managers, presented the commissioners with a number of interactive activities that he had developed for the occasion.

In one exercise, Baker asked each of the commissioners to brainstorm some things that they would like Alamance County to be known for across the state. Baker then had some of his colleagues print these ideas out on grids that resembled bingo cards, and he distributed these grids to the commissioners. He also handed each commissioner a sheet of orange stickers that he asked them to place over the items that ranked among their top five priorities.

Using this exercise, Baker was able to identify four goals that two or more of the commissioners had marked as their priorities. These four items included the overlapping aims of “being business friendly” and a being good “partner with the business community” as well as “excellence in the fundamental role of government” and, somewhat discordantly, a “civic center.”

Baker used another set of grid cards to get the commissioners to specify some of their specific objectives for Alamance County. As a framework to organize these precision goals, he harked back to a five-year strategic plan that the board of commissioners had adopted in 2018.

Acknowledging that this plan was set to sunset this year, Baker proposed some updates to its five pillars, which had emphasized the preservation of agriculture, “smart” growth and development, a “world-class education system,” public health and safety, and government accountability and resource management. The assistant county manager went on to consolidate the first two pillars into a new goal to “preserve our rural heritage and modernize our urban core.” He also modified the plank about “world-class” education to, instead, call for the county to collaborate “with our local education partners to support lifelong learning,” and he suggested a new objective to “improve quality of life by supporting [the county’s] unique assets.”

Baker’s proposed changes to the five-year plan drew some critiques from the commissioners that the assistant county manager said he would synthesize into a new strategic vision. In the meantime, he presented each commissioner with a new grid for each of his five recommended pillars and asked them to identify their top three priorities from the options that appeared on the card.

In the end, the commissioners came up with some unexpected juxtapositions as they identified their foremost concerns in each of the five subject areas.

In the category of “rural heritage” and “modernization,” the four board members apparently gave equal weight to infrastructure development, attracting new businesses, and revamping the county’s incentives policy.

In the arena of public health and safety, they singled out the proposed expansion of the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House as their top goal, followed by the development of a new 9-1-1 center and a drug recovery court.

Meanwhile, they identified their priorities for government accountability and resource management as a salary study, the recruitment and retention of county staff members, and the creation of a new post to handle the county’s public communication and outreach.

As for quality of life, the commissioners settled on rural broadband, youth athletics, and trail construction as their top goals.

In the case of public education, Baker simply asked the commissioners to rate their desired level of involvement along a spectrum that ranged from the bare statutory minimum at one end to a wholehearted commitment to the priorities of the school system and Alamance Community College at the other. The assistant county manager told the commissioners that their collective responses indicated a middle ground between these extremes.


Modest proposals
The roundabout method that Baker used to poll the commissioners may have, indeed, shed some light on the board’s collective propensities. But even more revealing were the individual remarks that the commissioners ventured as they mulled over the assistant county manager’s queries.

During their deliberations, the commissioners bandied around a whole host of suggestions that weren’t necessary reflected in Baker’s final survey results.

Commissioner Bill Lashley, for instance, asserted his support for the county’s recreation facilities and even suggested that the recreation department ought to start charging out-of-county residents to visit its parks. Lashley also gave his tentative nod to the idea of zoning – a nonstarter with many rural residents but an idea that Lashley insisted may be worth exploring due to the spillover effects from industrial megasites in other, neighboring counties.

“I won’t be sitting in this seat,” Lashley predicted. “But I know, at some point, we do need to look at countywide zoning.”

Another idea that got some traction with a few of the commissioners was a public referendum on a ¼-cent increase in the county’s sales tax rate.
The local electorate has roundly rejected this hike each of the four times that it has, so far, appeared on the ballot. The public shot the idea down most recently in 2018 when the commissioners floated it to offset the property tax impact of a $189.6 bond package that went before the voters that same year to raise funds for the local school system and Alamance Community College. Although area voters supported the bond referendum, they slapped down the proposed sales tax increase – a turn of events that has continued to weigh on Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

During Monday’s retreat, Carter shared his conviction that the voting public simply didn’t realize the potential boon that the sales tax increase would offer by diverting part of the cost of the bond package from property taxpayers to shoppers, who he figured are, more often than not, from outside the county.

“If it’s a good idea, we need to market it better,” he added. “If it’s not a good idea, we need to drop it and leave it alone.”

Several of the commissioners also threw their support behind the creation of a new staff-level post to handle public communication and outreach.

The county had initially established this position when a previous county manager dragooned the local library system’s spokeswoman to serve the whole county government. The sheriff eventually poached this same staff member to serve as his own public information officer – only to have her leave his employ when her husband accepted a new job out-of-state.

Heidi York told the commissioners that the county has since dispensed with the position that its former public information officer had held. She nevertheless recommended its resurrection in order to improve the county’s external communications – a proposal that immediately won favor with commissioner Craig Turner.

“There is so much good that nobody knows about,” Turner told the rest of the board.
“And we do not do a good job telling our story about what happens in county government,” York went on to concede.


Coming this spring…
As a coda to the some of more speculative matters broached at the retreat, the county manager also gave the commissioners an update on her current preparations for the county’s next annual budget.

York told the commissioners that, in lieu of the “parade of needs” that has traditionally kicked off the county’s budget process, she and her fellow administrators have been doing some extra work on the front end to pare down the requests from the county’s departments and agencies.

York went on to acknowledge that the individual departments have petitioned her for 29 new full-time positions – 20 of which she said are in Emergency Medical Services. York said that EMS will need some of these new posts to staff an ambulance base that’s in the offing in Mebane.

“They’re really struggling to keep up with the needs of our community,” she added, “as well as being short staffed.”

York also observed that, prior to her arrival, the expansion of Alamance County’s motor fleet had been fairly haphazard. York said that something in the neighborhood of $5 million will be needed to replace the fleet’s older vehicles, although she added that, in the future, these obsolete vehicles can be rotated out on a regular timetable.

“We’d like to get to the point where we stick to a schedule,” she said.

Read other stories from Monday’s county commissioners’ retreat:

Tax administrator reveals best guess of “revenue neutral” tax rate after revaluation:

Using school system’s capital needs fund to finance court construction listed as option by consultant:

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