It’s hard to believe it’s almost 2017, but that fact is sinking in with Guilford County leaders and, with 2016 all but over, they are now turning their gaze to 2017.
Many of the county’s elected officials and administrators say they’re ready to hit the ground running in what they are calling a critical year for Guilford County government.
In 2017, the county will focus on several major plans and projects – including making repairs and renovations to aging county-owned structures, initiating a proposed state-funded water system project for northwest Guilford County, building a new animal shelter and a new Emergency Service maintenance center and taking on many other projects.
The Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) – a joint effort by Guilford County, Greensboro and High Point to bring jobs to the area – now with a year of operation under its belt, has done the requisite studies and strategic plan and is now focused on what it was created to do: bring more economic development to the county.
When it comes to those heading up the Board of Commissioners for 2017, it’s just like The Who sang: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.” In the board’s first meeting in December, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips and Vice Chairman Alan Branson were reelected to their leadership positions. One rationale from commissioners who voted for the duo was that the two had some unfinished work to complete in 2017.
For instance, Guilford County is in the middle of implementing the Say Yes to Education initiative, designed to help area parents pay for their child’s college education. The commissioners have also gone back to the drawing board on the effort to find a suitable site for the county’s new animal shelter and they are also finally about ready to pull the trigger on building a new Emergency Services vehicle repair facility to replace the 35-year-old one now being used. The county is midstream when it comes to repairing aging county structures – including the Old Guilford County Court House and the giant parking lot that serves the governmental plaza in downtown High Point. That’s just a sample of what the commissioners want to get done next year.
Phillips said he knows the county has a full slate of projects for 2017 and he said he’s eager to help it move forward on those. One clear area of concern in the coming year is building a replacement animal shelter for the county’s existing shelter at 4525 W. Wendover Ave. Guilford County spent much of 2016 trying to convince City of Greensboro leaders to let the county build the new shelter in east Greensboro on a county-owned Burlington Road site next to the Guilford County Agricultural Center. However, residents and representatives of east Greensboro were adamant in their opposition and the commissioners didn’t want an ugly fight over what they believe will be a very positive project.
Now county staff is looking at new sites and the commissioners hope to find a suitable spot and start construction soon.
“Obviously, we’re going to zero in on making some form of progress on the animal shelter,” Phillips said.
The chairman added that he plans for the new Guilford County Animal Services Board to play an important role in that project as it develops.
He also said there’s reason to be optimistic about the shelter despite the setback over the Burlington Road site this year.
“Some new developments are surfacing – some new locations,” Phillips said.
He added that, as the shelter project progresses, one good thing is that some of the design work that went into the Burlington Road proposal can be carried over to the shelter in the new location, wherever that turns out to be.
Phillips said the county has plenty of other things on its plate next year as well. For instance, he said, there will also be a lot of “serious attention” given in 2017 to parks and recreation matters,” though he didn’t wish to elaborate much on that now.
But if there’s one point of emphasis that Phillips goes back to time and time again, it’s the one regarding economic development. By all accounts, Guilford County will make a major push in 2017 to recruit new business and expand those already here. Phillips serves on the GCEDA Leadership board and he expects that group to play a central role in the effort.
Phillips said another priority will be a water system project in northwest Guilford County. The first step will be a feasibility and cost study that’s expected to start soon. Phillips said a successful water service program would be a key to fire safety and to residential and commercial development in the county’s northwest in the coming years.
Phillips said education issues in the county are also very important. Say Yes is considered by many to be a major aid to economic development since it’s a unique benefit to Guilford County, but Phillips said that, even with all the well-deserved positivity around the project, there are still a lot of questions to be answered and Guilford County’s role is still being determined. County officials know that the county will be asked to help provide some “wrap-around services” – it’s just that they’re still unclear on what those will be.
“We don’t really know what that means,” he said of “wrap-around services.”
The Piedmont Triad International Airport megasite has also been getting a lot of attention lately and attempts to help expand it further will be important in 2017.
Phillips’ right-hand man for leading Guilford County government is Branson, as he has been for the last 12 months. Branson said he wants to see the current board help make county government more efficient in 2017, as the board has been doing in recent years.
Branson said it’s important to continue to fight to lower property taxes rather than return to the high taxing, high spending ways of the Democratically controlled Guilford County Boards of Commissioners before 2012.
Branson has many other interests for the coming year such as his advocacy for more rural representation on county boards and committees.
Like Phillips, Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing pointed to the county’s full slate of capital projects – such as renovations and repairs for county buildings – as an area of emphasis, but Lawing added that unquestionably one of the key goals for the coming year is “more jobs and better jobs.”
Lawing was a major proponent of creating GCEDA, and he has been working with both Greensboro and High Point to bring in more jobs.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan also stressed the importance of that effort for the coming year.
“One priority is economic development and wage growth,” Vaughan said, adding that Greensboro will also be focused on spending the millions of dollars in bonds that voters approved in November.
Lawing also said that one priority in the first quarter of 2017 is a major bond issuance to raise money for the schools and other projects.
Water is also on Lawing’s brain as it is on Phillips’. Lawing said he had a very positive experience with expanding county water services when he was manager of Brunswick County and, according to Lawing, that was a real boost for economic development in that coastal county and it no doubt could be here as well.
Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman has her own agenda for 2017, even though her party is still the minority party on the Board of Commissioners, as it’s been for the past four years.
“I’d like to see us do some more creative and innovative things that would make Guilford County number one again in the state,” Coleman said.
She said that, years ago, Guilford County was considered a leader in North Carolina, often implementing cutting-edge county programs that were emulated by other counties and cities.
“Now it’s just the usual, the status quo,” Coleman said of the actions of the elected and administrative leadership in Guilford County.
She added that county staff as well as commissioners are constantly exposed to the best practices of local governments across the nation when they go to conferences and interact in other ways with leaders in other places. She said that bringing some of those new and promising programs to Guilford County would help make it a county that other local governments could look to for leadership once again.
Coleman also said that county government needs to look inward not just outward – that is, it needs to start looking after its roughly 2,300 county employees.
“I’d like to see us really work to improve the morale of the employees,” Coleman said.
She said that Guilford County has a vast talent pool of experienced and knowledgeable workers, but Lawing doesn’t weigh their opinions highly enough.
“I want to see the manager involve employees in the decisions more,” Coleman said, adding that, as it is now, mandates are handed down from the manager’s office with very little employee input.
Coleman also said she wants to see the county’s school system better funded. Each year Guilford County spends about 45 percent of its budget on paying off school debt and funding the Guilford County Schools, but Coleman said it’s still not enough.
“Republicans say they’re giving more to the schools than when the Democrats were in charge, but that doesn’t mean I think the schools are getting enough,” she said.
Coleman also said Phillips and other Republicans on the board are advocates of charter schools and everyone can expect to see more emphasis on, and backing for, charter schools in 2017 – especially, she said, with Donald Trump’s charter school-friendly administration in place.
Commissioner Ray Trapp, also a Democrat, said, “My goal for the next 12 months is helping working poor people. Anything I try to get done will be for the working poor.”
He said in some cases county residents work 40 to 60 hours a week and still can’t make ends meet due to low wages and poor benefits. Trapp said that, much of the time, people make enough to keep them from getting government benefits but not enough to lift themselves out of poverty.
“Donald Trump will be focused on working class white people, but I want to look out not just for some working class people but working class people across the board,” Trapp said.
Trapp added that area workforce development should be a focus in the New Year and said that’s something Guilford County needs badly in 2017. He said training programs that enhance workers’ skills in the county are critical.
“I’m tired of advanced manufacturing going somewhere else because we don’t have the work forces to provide a certain skill set,” he said.
Trapp said mental health services are a major concern and that the current long-distance third-party structure of those services just isn’t conducive to good mental health care. He said it’s ridiculous that someone in Guilford County has to drive an hour and a half to reach the county’s mental health administrator – Sandhills Center in West End, North Carolina. He said improving mental health services next year should be a priority.