By Richard Sullins | email@example.com
Lee County Commissioners huddled late last week for nine hours of meetings at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center to prepare for the beginning of developing a spending plan for next fiscal year that starts on July 1. Their purpose was to review and update the county’s strategic plan that lays out the areas where they will focus through the summer of 2023.
The 19-page document is an update of the county’s first strategic plan adopted two years ago and that will be made public at the commission’s next meeting on February 7. It sets forth priorities in six key areas of focus: arts and culture, community safety, health and well-being, partnerships, education, and economic development.
Strategic plans are important management tools for large organizations, such as the county, that enable progress toward goals to be tracked. As departments and teams come to understand those larger strategies, their progress toward the larger goals helps to move the organization forward toward success. The county’s plan recognizes this by saying that the document “is a tool that clearly captures the most important priorities and will direct the development of our budget and resource allocations.”
The job of commissioner is a tough one and the meetings on Thursday and Friday reminded the county’s highest elected leaders of just how much weight is on their shoulders. The sessions provided broad overviews and deep insights into some of the greatest challenges that the state’s third-youngest county faces as the second month of 2022 begins.
Commissioners made it clear at the outset that their intention is to again lower property taxes this summer and early indications suggest that the chances are good that it could happen. But just as the weather can change overnight, so can circumstances in the political realm and that caused the commissioners to hold some difficult conversations on the issues facing the county, particularly in four of the six policy areas.
The most intense discussions over the two-day meeting were around partnerships, a topic that otherwise might draw little attention. But Republican Commissioner Bill Carver seemed to hit a nerve when he suggested tying this section to some of the requests made earlier in the week during the presentation of the report of the Sanford Equity Task Force in late January. That report made several sweeping recommendations for social change that would shift the dynamics of how races relate to one another, particularly in terms of access to the county’s cash reserves.
Carver set the tone for the conversation by suggesting the commissioners give due consideration to inviting members of the Black and Hispanic communities to the table to discuss the task force’s recommendations and begin a dialogue on how to begin to address them. He said that he had attended two conferences last fall where the topic of diversity was discussed and it was recommended that counties pay closer attention to the subject.
“When we did redistricting last fall, we had a huge response from the African-American community that suggested we had lost their confidence,” he said. “On Monday, they came to us and appealed that we take some action on the issue of relationships. We have to get away from the idea that we are going to solve these problems ourselves. We need to look to them because not only are they more familiar with it, they’ve also been keeping a lid on it. Can we just ask the question – can we just see where we are? And I think that ought to be reflected in our strategic plan. Relationship is the answer.”
Democratic Commissioner Mark Lovick agreed.
“I think Mr. Carver just hit it right on the head,” he said. “Life in general is about relationships.”
But Republican Chairman Kirk Smith had his reservations about getting caught up in what he perceived as a battle over semantics.
“I don’t want us to get bogged down in a debate over the meaning of the unholy trinity of words – ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion,'” he said. “”his country was founded on equality in the eyes of the law. We haven’t always lived up to that, I’ll admit that.”
Smith said it was his belief that different racial groups can derive different meanings and expectations from “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” resulting in poor communications between racial and ethnic groups. However, the Equity Task Force had not used those words together as a term in either their report to the board or its PowerPoint presentation.
“The use of those words is nothing more than a communistic form of sectionalism,” Smith continued, “where there is an excessive interest to local interest or customs to further divide the country into two separate sections. Colleges and universities have graduations based on sections. I don’t want to embrace the language of (diversity, equity, and inclusion) when it means exactly the opposite. I suggest we judge everyone on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as Dr. King taught us.”
Carver again suggested changing the conversation in ways that would be healthy for everyone.
“If you don’t like the words, let’s change them,” he said. “The question is how can we take what they said on Monday night and turn it into an objective that shows we care what they talked about? We could ask (task force members) Bishop Mellette and Jermaine White and Fred Webb to come together with us and state this in a way that all of us can agree on and can understand.”
As the discussion began to wind down, Smith again took issue with Carver’s words.
“You are wanting us to embrace verbiage that is divisive in its nature,” he said.
Carver responded, “No, I don’t want to do that. You are the one who keeps using the word ’embrace.’ I want to start a dialogue that allows us to come to agreement on what it is that we are talking about. How can we work together with the people this affects to move the county in the right direction? That’s the question.”
In the end, county staff was asked to draft an additional objective to take up issues Carver had raised and to exclude some of the wording Smith had suggested may not be helpful to the discussion.
Since the 1983 landmark study “A Nation at Risk,” hundreds of reports have been written from every conceivable point of view on what needs to be done to fix American education. That was clear as commissioners took up the topic and discussed what they could do to address issues locally. But even they couldn’t agree on what needed attention most.
At its January 10 meeting, the board issued a proclamation in support of School Choice Week, calling attention to the private options available to Lee County students as well as public ones.
At the strategic planning workshop, Smith remarked “I’m very proud that we have three charter schools and three Christian schools in the county. We need to tout that we have educational choices.”
Republican Commissioner Dr. Andre Knecht went even further by saying “the other thing we need to tout is that we have information that can help them stay viable.”
Lee County’s public schools have been a target for criticism among Republican circles in the county in recent years and Carver moved the discussion over to what is perceived by some as its lack of performance.
“So much of this belongs to the school board, but they are not eager to embrace (the county’s) goals and objectives,” he said.
County Manager Dr. John Crumpton added the state Department of Public Instruction “has finally published (average daily membership) numbers and Lee County is still below 9,200 (students per day). They did come back a little from last year, but they’re still below where they have been.”
Carver believed the county needs to pay more attention to private schools and let the public school system sort out its problems.
“It’s an interesting two-edged sword,” he said. “Christian and charter schools are increasing and while there is talk in the community about building more schools, their numbers are just going down.”
Smith believed the problem lies elsewhere.
“We’ve been focused for years on ‘you’ve got to go to college, you’ve got to go to college,'” he said. “For years, we’ve heard that. And all the while, our tradesmen – our electricians, our plumbers, our air conditioning guys – are just disappearing. And what are we doing to provide the kind of training that kids need to be encouraged to enter these kinds of essential and good-paying jobs?”
Crumpton brought up another issue with Lee County Schools.
“The Board of Education has been trying to engage us to buy sites, but we don’t know where they want them,” he said. “That needs to be a joint discussion that they haven’t seemed to want to engage with. All we need is to sit down with (GIS Strategic Services Director Don) Kovasckitz and his GIS and see where the developments are and go from there.”
Ultimately, the commission left its three goals in education unchanged and chose to give attention in the coming year to whatever “low-hanging fruit” it had an opportunity to impact.
Lee County’s astounding success in attracting new industrial clients has become the model the rest of North Carolina and several other states have sought to copy. That means the county has had to up its game even more to stay ahead of the competition. Jimmy Randolph, CEO of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, told the commissioners “our challenge this year is to continue our public and private partnerships and make sure we all stay on the same page with views on our investments in land and facilities.”
SAGA responded to 105 requests for information from businesses and industries, the first time this number has reached or exceeded 100. Randolph said the previous record for requests received in a year was 78 and that interest is continuing to soar with 12 RFIs already requested in January. The demand is coming from a variety of industries, with much of it in the life sciences because of the county’s proximity to Research Triangle Park, major research universities, Central Carolina Community College, and similar industries that the county has already attracted.
That success has not been without challenges, though, and one of the toughest has been the decline in the number of suitable sites for future new industrial expansion. Central Carolina Enterprise Park has only three lots remaining, and the county’s inventory of vacant industrial buildings is virtually non-existent. There are up to 1,700 acres potentially available at two other locations but securing the kind of spaces that can accommodate the sizes demanded by industries today will continue to be a challenge if the county is to remain competitive.
The commissioners will also focus attention on the county’s agriculture through “improv(ing) connections for agribusiness by catalyzing partnerships and connections between N.C. State and local farming community.”
Agriculture is a $283 million industry in the county and the commissioners were unanimous in their desire to create more interest in it. The February 7 draft is expected to provide more details regarding how this will be accomplished.
Health and Well-Being
Since the adoption of the county’s first Strategic Plan in 2020, much has changed in the ways people take care of themselves. Perhaps as never before, we have begun to pay far greater attention to the risks associated with interactions between ourselves and others, and we have taken on an increased awareness of how the spread of communicable diseases can change the fabric of our daily existence.
As the commissioners delved into this topic, they continually tipped their hats to the men and women of the local Health Department, whose devotion to duty and commitment to serve provided the kind of response to a public health crisis that was unprecedented in scope.
“Counties don’t face this kind of a tidal wave but maybe once in a generation, but these guys stood up to be counted when they were called on and they should be proud of their service,” Knecht said.
The attention commissioners have paid to the Health Department since the arrival of COVID in March 2020 was discussed and there was unanimous agreement that the department’s accomplishments in facing down four major waves of the virus stood on their own merits.
The work the county did in renovating and expanding several of its parks in 2020 was also recognized as contributing to local health and well-being.
“Physical well-being also comes with the new bike trails and amenities we’ve added, and the Multi-Sports Complex will be a huge addition to that when it opens next year,” Smith said.
The county manager’s staff has narrowed the list of potential designers for the complex to three and is expected to make a recommendation for selection to the board at its next meeting. As for the full Strategic Plan, its public unveiling will take place on February 7 at the McSwain Center on Tramway Road.