The Guilford County Board of Commissioners will meet on Thursday, Feb. 9 and Friday, Feb. 10 to determine the fate of the county.
That might be something of an overstatement, but it’s actually not off the mark by much. The county commissioners are holding their annual retreat on those days to have a wide-ranging, in-depth discussion that in large part will determine the direction and priorities of the county’s ruling board for the rest of 2017 and that will play a role in the budget they adopt this summer.
This time around, there are a great deal of weighty issues and long-term projects facing Guilford County, and the packed agenda will include items that have been highly controversial.
The retreats – held each year in January or February – are a rare chance for the entire board to meet and discuss issues in great detail, and for them to tackle broad problems they don’t have time to address during regular meetings – which are often loaded down with housekeeping business, zoning disputes or something that requires the board to engage in governmental firefighting rather than long-range strategic planning.
This year’s Board of Commissioners retreat will be held at the Cameron Campus of Guilford County Technical Community College (GTCC) in Colfax.
There are a lot of questions the board is expected to address: Will the county form a new stand-alone parks and recreation department? Where should Guilford County build its new animal shelter? What needs to be done regarding a proposed major new water service project for Guilford County’s northwest?
There are also the usual more mundane questions that come up each year. What should be priorities in the 2017-2018 county budget? What should school funding in that budget look like? What can Guilford County do to address pressing problems such as the increases in demand for social services, including the increasing costs of foster cCare services?
The commissioners are also likely to take a hard look at the county’s mental health services – which are now administered by a nine-county management entity an hour-and-a-half drive away. There’s also plenty to consider in relation to the Sheriff Department’s Otto Zenke building in downtown Greensboro, which is on its last legs due to age and flooding over the years, and with regard to the planned move of those services into the old jail on the same block. And what about the county’s other structures in need of major repair?
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said he has been meeting with County Manager Marty Lawing to help determine the best way to approach the full plate the county will face at the big February meeting. Phillips said fellow county commissioners had offered agenda items for the board to discuss at its once-a-year event.
“There are some very compelling issues, some hot topics,” Phillips said.
The chairman added that Lawing also had a list of items he wants the board to address so that staff can get the board’s direction for the coming year.
“He’s got some ideas and he’s been making a priority list,” Phillips said of Lawing.
He also said that increasing demands on the county’s foster care services have been a recalcitrant problem in recent years, “not only from a budget perspective but from a human perspective as well.”
Phillips added that there were several issues related to social services the county needs to get a solid grip on.
“There have been some systemic issues with processes that we have to understand better,” he said.
According to Phillips, commissioners have been hearing too often from various sectors of county government, that, “This is just the way it is; there’s not much we can do about this.”
Phillips said he was optimistic that county commissioners coming together and discussing matters methodically can lead to some “new innovative approaches” that may help solve county problems that have been mounting for some time.
Phillips said he felt that Guilford County, under a Republican board for the last four years, had been moving down the right path, reducing debt, gradually lowering taxes and consolidating county services.
“I think we need to move in that same direction,” he said.
One thing that’s been cut out of this retreat is a bunch of routine presentations from major departments. The commissioners already hear a good number of those presentations at regular meetings and past retreats have often involved rehashing material.
Vice Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said that, too often in the last four years since he was elected, the commissioners have been subject to “death by PowerPoint.”
The second day of this year’s retreat may in fact turn out to be a half-day rather than a full day. The truth is that, after meeting all day on Thursday and most of the day on Friday, the commissioners get very giddy and Friday afternoon is always a very unproductive few hours, with some commissioners leaving frequently to make phone calls to take care of business they’ve put on hold.
“The last afternoon was worthless,” Branson said of last year’s retreat when the commissioners met on Friday afternoon.
Branson, who runs a trucking company, said he often needs to take care of business after being completely out of the loop for a day.
“I’m used to being on the go – I get a little antsy,” he said.
When Lawing first came to Guilford County four years ago, he proposed holding a three-day retreat, as was the practice in Brunswick County where he was manager before coming to Guilford County, but the commissioners shot that idea down as soon as they heard it.
Branson said that, even if the board takes Friday afternoon off this year, he expects the board to have plenty of time to address a large number of important issues.
Branson said capital projects, debt management, parks and rec and school funding are just a few of the major issues he wants to see discussed.
He said he hopes to find out why so much school funding goes to sports facilities rather than class space.
“I like sports as much as the next guy,” Branson said, “but they need new classrooms.”
He said he sees trailers at schools too often, even though the county has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to address a classroom shortage.
“They call them ‘pods’; I call them ‘doublewides,’” Branson said.
He also said that this year the commissioners have a lot of work to do when it comes to capital projects, like finding the best location for a new animal shelter.
“It’s been back and forth on properties and we’ve had some complications,” he said. “This will give us a chance to get into the weeds on that.”
Branson said Guilford County also needs to find a place for an Emergency Services vehicle maintenance and repair base that the county has been discussing for well over a decade. Those operations recently found a new temporary home, but it’s temporary and Branson said he wants the issue solved once and for all.
“We’ve got to make a decision,” he said.
Commissioner Alan Perdue said he hopes the board can find some new approaches this year instead of the same old, same old answers.
“To me, the biggest priority is properly evaluating the services we are providing,” Perdue said. “Are we asking the right questions and providing the right services?”
Commissioner Ray Trapp said he has some advice for the commissioners going into the retreat. The very liberal Democrat Trapp got the advice from a conservative Republican, former Commissioner Billy Yow, in 2012, when Yow was on his way off the board and Trapp was going on that board.
“One thing Billy Yow told me when I was coming in,” Trapp said, “was, ‘Never believe anything staff tells you.’”
County officials took a long time this year deciding on a retreat location. They had considered Union Square Campus in downtown Greensboro, which was established through a partnership between Cone Health, GTCC, North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They also considered holding it at facilities at Bryan Park or Bur-Mil Park, but prospective sites were undergoing renovations or couldn’t be used for other reasons.
Branson said that his first two choices for the retreat were “Hawaii or Figure Eight Island.”
In 2006, former Chairman of the Guilford County Commissioners Bruce Davis held the retreat in Chapel Hill, even though the weather reports called for a major snowstorm that Saturday, and some county staff and reporters nearly crashed on the icy trip home.
Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said the county looks for low cost, a central location and a large enough room for the commissioners, the press and a great deal of county staff.
The host site will often provide meals. The best food the commissioners have ever been provided was at a retreat in 2014 when they met at High Point University. For two days, every meal was a gourmet delight and all through the meetings there were giant tumblers that held peanut M&M’s and other candies and snacks.