In a move that could have dramatic implications for Guilford County government for years to come, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips and Commissioner Hank Henning have decided not to file to run again for the seats they hold on that board.
The nine-member Board of Commissioners has held a 5-to-4 Republican majority since Phillips and Henning were elected in 2012, but now, holding that majority looks much more tenuous since neither of the popular Republican commissioners will be on the ballot in 2020.
Phillips, who represents County Commissioner District 5, and Henning, elected from County Commissioner District 6, both said on Wednesday, Dec. 11, that one reason they weren’t seeking a third term as commissioners is that they had come in together seven years ago with some goals in sight and had accomplished many of those goals.
Both men said they hoped that Guilford County government was now on a solid enough footing financially and governmentally that future boards will be able to keep things on a steady course of progress.
Phillips and Henning will continue to serve on the board until new commissioners are sworn in in early December of next year. Phillips was just elected chairman of the board and he said he has a lot that he wants to get done in his last year as a commissioner and chairman.
Phillips said he thought a great deal about whether or not to run again and he decided that two terms was enough.
“Eight years is a long time,” Phillips said. “It’s been good – it’s very rewarding.”
Phillips, a financial advisor, said he wanted to focus more on his family and his business after he steps down as a commissioner. He said he loves spending time with his three grandchildren and he added that he knows that in no time they’ll be at an age when he won’t be able to spend as much quality time with them.
Henning, like Phillips, said he felt that Guilford County had made tremendous strides over the last seven years and that he too thought it was best to step aside at the end of next year.
He said that even the critics of the Republicans have to acknowledge the strides the county has made.
“Regardless of what they say about us, everyone has to agree the county is in much better shape than it was seven years ago when we took over,” Henning said of the Republican majority that took over in 2012.
In the years before 2012, when the Democrats were in control of the Board of Commissioners, taxes were often raised several cents a year. However, the Republicans haven’t raised taxes since winning the majority of seats on the board. Also, in the years leading up to 2012, there was a good deal of corruption and waste at the highest levels of Guilford County government, and many departments, like the Guilford County Animal Services Department, the Transportation Department and the Department of Social Services, were in sad shape. The Republican-led board has made many dramatic moves such as doing away with the Board of Social Services and creating a brand new model for mental health services.
In 2013, the Republican Board of Commissioners hired Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, a manager who in turn hired a host of very capable department directors over the years.
Guilford County has also paid down debt over the last seven years and is now building some long-needed facilities such as a new animal shelter and a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility.
“Ninety-five percent plus of the things I’ve wanted to accomplish have been accomplished and that’s remarkable,” Henning said. “The accountability piece, the efficiency piece – proving that government can live within its means. You know, it is the people’s money and we need to make do with what they’re willing to give us.”
Henning also said the county has sold off a lot of unneeded county property, such as the building at 232 N. Edgeworth St., which recently went up for sale. He said those moves have helped expand the tax base.
“In the case of every single department, we took it head on and didn’t kick the can down the road,” Henning said.
Phillips said the number of problems he and other new commissioners found when they arrived in 2012 was nothing short of amazing.
“It was like everywhere we turned, really, there was another – well, we’ll call it, to be nice, another ‘opportunity.’ Let’s just say the opportunities were, well, endless, frankly. And that’s been exciting, frustrating – and maddening at times. There were so many things for us to address.”
Phillips said that he and other commissioners had a sense of what they were getting into when they were elected, but he added that they couldn’t really know the details and extent of the issues until they took their seats.
One of the things that Phillips was very concerned about when he became a commissioner was the state of mental health care administration in the county and he was the lead architect of a sweeping public/private initiative that is completely reshaping the way those services are delivered.
Phillips said there is still a lot of work in county government that needs to get done.
“I keep reminding myself that, even though we have accomplished a lot, we have a lot of work to do over the next 12 months,” Phillips said. “I’m looking forward to that, I really am. There’s a lot on the table that we want to finish and I want to finish strong.”
Phillips said he’s been “blessed” to have had this opportunity.
Henning added: “We did our best. I think we’ve shown people how government can be government for the people. We came in together in 2012 with [Commissioner] Alan Branson and we all had the goal of making government more accountable and more efficient.”