The Guilford County commissioners and county staff came to a complete standoff during a key part of the Board of Commissioners retreat held on Thursday, Feb. 9 and Friday, Feb. 10.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing and other top administrators were looking for guidance from the commissioners regarding the county’s top priorities for the coming years, but the commissioners were having none of it.

And the commissioners refused to budge no matter how many times Lawing or other county staff asked for help forming the goals to be part of a grand strategic four- or five-year plan.

While staff may have left the two-day retreat empty-handed in that regard, the commissioners did tackle quite a few issues in the 14 hours of meetings at the Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Colfax.

The board gave staff the go-ahead on several capital improvement projects, increased the county’s goal for purchasing from Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) and moved a step forward on establishing a new Family Justice Center in High Point to help victims of domestic violence in that section of the county.

The board also voted to create a new Veterans Advisory Council to help connect area veterans with services, explored ways to address the county’s mounting foster care case load, aired concerns over the administration of the county’s mental health services and also established a proposed adoption schedule for the 2017-2018 budget.

While the commissioners did tackle a lot of county business, when Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford, Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier and Lawing tried to get the commissioners to engage in a strategic planning exercise, the board didn’t want to play along – and the back and forth between the county’s elected leaders and staff was so pronounced it was comical at times. At one point, Halford, who was leading the discussion, even said he was in an uncomfortable position because usually there would be a “facilitator” handling that duty.

Lawing and other top county brass had met with department heads before the retreat and the group had come up with a list of potential county priorities for the upcoming years – and Lawing, Halford and Grier wanted to spend most of Friday morning having the commissioners say which items were important to them and then rank them.

The list, consisting of four pages of goals from that brainstorming meeting, included things like, “encourage employee health and well-being” and “attract and retain competent and talented employees.” Other items were “maintain AAA bond rating,” “increase operational efficiency,” “provide safe facilities for employees and inmates” and “reduce the frequency and severity of crime.”

Some of the proposed goals from the brainstorming session were more concrete – such as “expand school medical services” and “establish a paid internship program.” However, the commissioners didn’t see the point of the exercise.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips stated politely, when he saw the list, that it was kind of vague, and he said most of the items were things the board had been working toward for the last four years.

“We’re already doing things to address these,” Phillips said, adding later, “Half of these we’ve done.”

Halford stressed the importance of ranking the priorities.

“We haven’t really heard from the board at a high level that these are things the board wants us to focus on,” Halford said.

Commissioner Hank Henning clearly thought the whole exercise was absurd. He pointed to the first item on the list – “encourage employee health and well-being,” and said, “What are we going to say? ‘We want unhealthy people?’”

Henning added, “When I think about taking care of myself, I don’t look to my employer.”

He said everyone knows not to smoke or be sedentary, as well as the other basic rules for being healthy, but he said he didn’t see promoting those behaviors as the role of an employer.

“We’re saying a lot of obvious things, but I’ve never been motivated by my employer to do anything,” Henning said.

On another of the goals from county staff’s brainstorming meeting, Halford asked the board, “My question to you is, do you want to have an engaged staff?”

“No,” Henning said quickly, getting a solid laugh from the two dozen or so department heads and other county staff who were in the large conference room.

“Well, we want to have a nice community,” Henning said of another goal. “It’s like the candidate who says, ‘I’m an anti-crime candidate’– as opposed to what? The pro-crime candidate?”

Commissioner Ray Trapp said he believed those priorities were things Lawing and other county administrators should decide. Trapp said the commissioners rely on staff to tell the board what’s important. Trapp added that many of the items were about the “day to day operations of Guilford County.”

“You run that,” Trapp said to the administrators.

Staff persisted quite a bit in their attempt to get guidance from the commissioners. At one point the commissioners felt they were furtively being asked to fund a county-run employee health clinic that they have turned down before.

“We haven’t asked you if you want a clinic,” Halford said. “We’ve asked you if you want healthy staff.”

”No,” Henning said again.

Phillips said he was “just a little unclear” on the necessity of ranking what were obviously desirable, but vague, goals. One that came up for discussion was whether the county wanted to keep its AAA bond rating, which of course it does.

Lawing said, the reason “maintain a AAA bond rating” was on the list is because that’s something that’s “getting harder and harder to do.” If that’s a priority, in other words, the county might need to maintain it at the cost of other goals since the county might have to, for instance, keep more funds in reserve.

Halford said strategic planning helps county staff come up with specific guidelines for employees. For instance, he said, the board has never established an appropriate response time for county services. Halford said that knowing things like that would help the county evaluate employees and know better how to use its limited resources.

Lawing also wanted the board’s input.

“Most organizations that are achieving success have a road map, have a plan,” the manager said.

“It is cumbersome,” Lawing added. “Until about 10 years ago, most of them involved public meetings, but that has changed to a more internal process.”

He said that, after the commissioners had gone through the strategic planning process once, “subsequent plans won’t be so painful.”

Commissioner Alan Perdue said staff should break the list down into “which ones can we do right now and which ones will take money?”

In the end, the board instructed Lawing and other top county staff to rank the priorities and bring that back to the board for review.

While the strategic planning part of the retreat wasn’t exactly a raging success, much of the discussion did move county business forward.

One issue the commissioners addressed was the county’s MWBE purchasing efforts. Last April, MWBE purchases made up about 6 percent of all county contracts and purchases. However, Grier reported that those numbers had improved to just over 15 percent in recent months.

After Grier’s presentation on MWBE purchasing, Trapp made a motion for Guilford County to increase its MWBE participation goal from 10 percent to 15 percent of all county purchases.

When it comes to using MWBE services, Guilford County is greatly limited in what it can do. When it comes to county contracts for goods, the board is required by law to go with the lowest bidder. The county does have more say when it comes to services, and it can do things like try and get the word out better to MWBE companies about available county contracts or try to encourage contractors to sub contract with MWBE firms.

Trapp’s motion, which Commissioner Carlvena Foster seconded, was approved with only Commissioner Alan Branson voting no.

Branson has been critical of the whole concept. He sees it as showing favoritism to some companies, and he recently compared it to MWBE firms it to “bid rigging.”

Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Henning and Conrad were absent for that vote; however, Coleman showed up later and, when she found out that the Republican majority board had voted to up the MWBE goal, she was amazed and overwhelmed. Coleman said the only explanation is that the Republican’s had gotten “Jesus in their hearts and the Holy Spirit in their feet.”

A less ethereal explanation, however, is that it’s just a goal, and voting to approve it didn’t cost the county a dime or take any real effort.

At the retreat, the board also, by general consensus, moved to have a Family Justice Center sub-committee of the Board of Commissioners consider a feasibility study for a potential High Point expansion of that service. That committee includes Commissioners Henning, Foster, Perdue and Kay Cashion – one of the driving forces behind establishing the Justice Center in Greensboro.

The Board of Commissioners also reached a consensus to form a joint committee consisting of commissioners, Board of Education members and others to prepare a request for proposals for “an independent school facilities study.” For years, the commissioners have had a lot of questions about school capital needs, the allocation of school bond money and the way the school system spends money on schools and other buildings. The coming study should answer some of those questions as well as provide guidance for school staff as to where repairs are most needed.

At the retreat, Trapp made a motion to establish a Guilford County Veterans Advisory Council. That was seconded by Foster and approved unanimously.

After the board voted to establish that new council, it voted to get rid of a county body. It eliminated the Guilford County Environmental Review Board. Henning made the motion to do so, saying the board often cancels meetings due to a lack of business, and arguing that many of that board’s duties were redundant. The commissioners assigned those duties to the Guilford County Planning Board. That motion, effective immediately, passed on a 7-to-2 vote with Coleman and Foster voting no.

The board addressed other concerns as well. Branson, who said he was worried about the current low morale of county employees and county staff, said that things like more flex time, more perks and better benefits could help.

Lawing wants very much to open a county-run health clinic for the county’s 2,300 employees. However, the county commissioners have shot that idea down several times over the years.   Lawing has said he believes an onsite clinic will save the county money and lead to healthier, more productive county employees, but so far the county commissioners haven’t bit.

Lawing said he considered employee wellness a priority.

“How? Other than a clinic – which we’ve heard,” Phillips said. “We’ve wrestled with that, and I’m going to tell you that unless something changes, I’m not about to put in a half-million dollars or whatever it is.”

The county commissioners did seem prepared to give the manager something – namely a new fitness center for county employees. That may be built on the third-floor of the county-owned BB&T building in downtown Greensboro.

Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said the existing fitness center created with donated equipment was used a lot. She said it was very popular at lunchtime and right after business hours.

Lawing said the current fitness center that the county has for employees is too small and some of the equipment was old or even “antique.”

Lawing may also be on the verge of getting something else he’s been asking for for years – a public information officer.

At the retreat, both he and Grier said that was badly needed.

“We need to protect our brand,” Grier said. “We don’t communicate our successes well enough. We are always behind the eight ball on communicating to the public.”

Grier said that currently the news media tends to focus on the negative stories.

“Now if we do something bad, it’s out there,” Grier said.

The commissioners and county staff were very upset about a recent television news story in which one person interviewed said Guilford County planned to euthanize some animals at the shelter if no temporary homes were found for the animals while some work was being done at the shelter. The county sent out a press release saying that was untrue.

“It was such a stupid story,” Henning said. “They didn’t call a person in the county.”

Conrad said he has come around to seeing the need for a public information officer since it is necessary for the county to counteract misinformation.

At the retreat, Lawing also talked about a need for a new county emblem and brand and the commissioners agreed.

“The county needs something,” Trapp said. “Everything we have looks old.”

Lawing said right now the county uses the county seal for its literature and for other things.

“Our seal is a nice seal, but it’s 200 years old,” the manager said.

Some slides presented showed new branding used by other counties in North Carolina, and many officials at the retreat wanted something more up to date that Guilford County could use so it does not always have to rely on the seal for branding. Presumably, the county would keep the seal unchanged but have an alterative brand image for use when the situation calls for it.

Cashion agreed that Guilford County needs to spruce up its image.

“We have done a very poor job claiming our brand,” she said.

Branson said that if the county does hire a public spokesperson, he or she needs oversight, and Phillips agreed. The chairman said he was “uncomfortable” with some messages that had been posted on the county’s Twitter account.

At the retreat, the commissioners also heard a lot of facts and figures. Taxable sales transaction in the county, for instance, have been increasing since fiscal 2009-2010, and are now at $6.7 billion. Building permits are also up from 2,638 in fiscal 2008-2009 to 4,133 in 2015-2016.

One interesting stat was just how high the combined city and county tax rate in Greensboro is compared to the rest of the state. Raleigh and Wake County come in with a combined rate of $1.0188 per $100 of assessed property value, while Charlotte and Mecklenburg County were at $1.2944. The City of Durham and Durham County is $1.3160. Greensboro and Guilford County taxes combined are at $1.3875. The combined rate for Summerfield and Guilford County is 78.25 cents (though for some Summerfield residents a fire district rate charge is added), while the combined property tax rate in High Point and Guilford County is $1.4025.