Guilford County government now has two brand new leaders running the show – Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson and Vice Chairman Justin Conrad.
Both were elected to those positions with unanimous support from their fellow commissioners on Thursday, Dec. 7 and, now that it’s too late for them to be careful what they ask for, both men are looking toward 2018 and formulating their plan of attack.
The Guilford County commissioners have no more meetings scheduled for 2017, but starting right after the New Year there will be plenty of activity for Guilford County government. Branson and Conrad both said that next year is a critical one for Guilford County, with major construction projects on tap and new programs in the works. The year will also bring a host of financial challenges in the 2018-2019 fiscal budget that the board will craft and adopt under the leadership of the two.
Branson said that economic development will be a major priority for the county. He said two important parts of that effort will be workforce development and making sure county government is business friendly.
According to Branson, the fact that the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, just south of Guilford County, is a finalist for a huge Mazda-Toyota car plant is a very positive sign. He said everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that that will be the good news of the year – or rather, the decade – for this area.
“Time will tell,” Branson said of the county’s prospects to get that car plant. “I guess we have a 50/50 chance right now. Things are being ramped up fast.”
Published reports have stated that the decision is now down to North Carolina and Alabama. Branson said the size of state incentives offered would no doubt play a significant role in the choice.
The new chairman also said that, just as the megasite south of Guilford County is ripe for development in 2018, another megasite – about 800 acres of runway connected land at Piedmont Triad International Airport – should start attracting interested companies next year as well.
According to Branson, companies already in Guilford County may expand as the economy improves. HAECO Americas, for instance, an aircraft repair and maintenance company, is about to open its fifth hanger at the airport – a $70 million facility that can handle the largest airliners. Branson said he’d like to see expansion of existing companies at the airport.
“I know FedEx is not hopping like we’d hoped it would be,” Branson said of the express delivery company that’s never brought as many jobs to the area as promised.
Speaking of economic development, the new chairman said one big question the Board of Commissioners will face in 2018 is whether or not to provide municipal water service to the small towns and surrounding areas in northwest Guilford County.
Next year, Guilford County, Rockingham County and the towns of Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield will get the results of the wide-ranging water system feasibility study, which should tell the commissioners and area leaders what they need to know to decide whether to expand water services in the northwest.
Branson said all of Guilford County, not just the northwest, is experiencing well water supply issues. He pointed out that one reason the Board of Commissioners recently rejected a request from Lehigh Hanson Inc. to conduct blasting at a rock quarry near Pleasant Garden was because of concerns it might hurt well water supply and quality in the surrounding area.
Northwest Guilford County has been a “hot growth area” for years, Branson said, and it’s going to take a balancing act to promote smart development and maintain a quality of life for the residents of an area that’s quickly becoming a lot less rural.
Guilford County may or may not undertake that proposed water service initiative, but one project the board has decided to take on in 2018 is the construction of a new Guilford County Animal Shelter. That project, which was initially estimated to cost taxpayers about $9 million, now looks like it will cost closer to $15 million.
An animal shelter design consultant the county hired suggested in a late November work session that the county might save money by renovating and adding on to the county’s existing shelter at 4525 W. Wendover Ave., but Branson said he’s going to fight that proposal if it turns out that fellow commissioners seriously want to pursue that option.
“Traffic is horrible there,” he said. “The mid-’70s structure is inadequate for today’s needs, and we could be $2 million or $3 million in the hole and then discover major problems with the structure.”
Even if the job went well, Branson said, “You’d be spending $8 million to $10 million and your staff would still be working out of a doublewide.”
Guilford County commissioners and administrators are optimistic that a highly touted and experienced new Animal Services director will do great things next year in Guilford County. Jorge Ortega, the former senior director of operations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Adoption Center in New York, starts his job with the county next month and he’s expected to help oversee the design and construction of the new shelter.
“I’m hoping the new guy will play a significant role in developing the shelter,” Branson said.
Branson also said he wants the county commissioners to work closely with the Guilford County Board of Education in 2018 to improve the county’s school system. The rash of school shootings in other parts of the county and other school violence seems to have influenced Branson’s thinking about Guilford County next year.
“We have to make safety and security on the school campuses an absolute priority,” Branson said.
He added that he’s not sure yet what steps need to be taken, but he said it could even be something as radical as giving each student an electronic key fob that gives them access to campus facilities.
Of course, all the county’s hopes and dreams and plans come at a cost, and Branson stresses that he doesn’t want to see a property tax rate increase in the county budget this year.
“If I’ve got anything to do with it, we will not see a tax increase,” said Branson, who as chairman will have quite a lot to do with it.
Branson said he still needs to see the project numbers from the Guilford County Tax Department and the county manager’s office, and he added that he knows the Democratic commissioners are going to be pushing hard for some costly initiatives – such as a minimum wage of $15 per hour for every employee. Commissioner Carolyn Coleman has already been asking for that in 2017.
The new chairman said he has a tough act to follow since Commissioner Jeff Phillips had that role for two years.
“I haven’t always agreed with him but I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” Branson said. “He was always very eloquent and professional.”
Branson said he’s been brushing up on Robert’s Rules of Order so that he doesn’t make any embarrassing mistakes during the meetings. He said he wants to maintain a quick meeting pace while making sure everyone has a chance to have their say. He added that he doesn’t want to see commissioners meetings going until 2 a.m. as would happen years ago when meetings often got out of control.
Branson was only one vote away from being elected chairman unanimously – his own vote. He abstained during that vote, but everyone else voted for him.
That’s always a good sign on a divided board. The conservative Branson will no doubt face battles from Democrats, but that division may not be as bad as it has been in some years past.
When high-profile Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston came on the board in May to replace former District 8 Commissioner Ray Trapp, who stepped down to take a job with NC A&T State University, many political observers thought that might mean a more highly divided and contentious board. However, in reality, Alston’s presence has had a unifying effect. Since he has come on, the two biggest votes of the board – passing a budget and electing a chairman – have been unanimous votes (not counting Branson’s abstention – which counts as a no vote according to board rules), and sources say Alston worked behind the scenes to make that happen so that the Democrats will be able to sometimes get what they want from the Republican-majority board by working with the Republicans rather than against them.
In the 2017-2018 budget, for instance, Alston and the Democrats got more money for the schools as well as some funding for the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store that the Republicans initially had no intention of supporting with taxpayer money. It’s too soon in Branson’s tenure to know what relationship, as chairman, he will have with the Democrats on the board, but Alston and Phillips worked well together and the Democratic support for a Republican chairman and vice chairman means the two parties are at least setting out toward the new year on the right foot.
Brand new Vice Chairman Justin Conrad also got unanimous bipartisan support in his quest to be vice chairman.
Conrad is the chairman of the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board and he’s more thrilled than anyone that the county has hired a new Animal Services director who’ll be starting just after the New Year.
Conrad will have a lot of say in the design and construction of the shelter. He has always been concerned with keeping the county’s spending down; however, he’s stated publicly several times that, when it comes to the new Animal Shelter, given all of the current problems with the existing facility, the people of Guilford County deserve a first-class facility.
Conrad, in fact, is largely responsible for the hiring of Ortega, since Conrad found out about him and called personally to get him to apply for the job.
Conrad said he’s really looking forward to 2018 and his chance to help lead the board.
“There’s a lot of things happening right now,” Conrad said.
Conrad represents many people in the county’s northwest, so he’s particularly interested in the results of the water feasibility study for that area.
“We have situations all over Guilford County with water wells,” Conrad said.
Phillips has been moved from his center seat on the dais to one next to the end, but he is still expected to play a big part in county government next year. Phillips, a financial advisor by trade, has been the point man for the county’s budget ever since he got elected to the board in 2012. In that time, taxes have steadily come down after years of big hikes by a Democratic-majority board.
In this century alone, the Democratic Board’s of Commissioners effectively added 24.18 cents on the tax rate. For the owner of a $200,000 house, all those increases added up to over $480 a year in extra property taxes.
But Phillips and the Republicans, rather than the Democrats, will have the say over the budget in 2018.
“Alan asked me to continue to oversee that,” Phillips said of the budget process, “so I’ll still be very much involved.”
Phillips said one thing he’ll be paying particular attention to in 2018 is a comprehensive school facilities assessment study now underway. About 45 percent of the county’s budget is spent on school needs and paying off school construction debt, and that study may help the county save on those projects in the future.
“That will give us some direction on how we fund our facilities going forward,” Phillips said.
Phillips also pointed out that the county’s mental health services need a lot of attention and the county will be opening a new family justice center in High Point to combat domestic violence and related problems.
During his tenure as chairman, Phillips promoted more outreach for foster care efforts and also offered focus on child protective services in the county. He said he’d like to see the board continue those efforts in 2018.
Phillips said he’s also anxious for the county to move forward with a new pilot program endorsed by state legislators that will allow the county to save money and generate revenue by posting legally required notices on the county’s website rather than paying to run them in the local newspapers. That’s an issue the commissioners have delayed until the first meeting in January.
The former chairman wrote this week in an email, “Until then, I want to wish our citizens and county staff a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 2018 is going to be a great year for Guilford County!”