Tag Archives: Local Government

Lean and Nimble

SEABROOK SAYS: Gaston County is extremely fortunate to have Earl Mathers as our county manager.  Our commissioners have just finished the budget for the upcoming year.  Earl shares lots of information about the financial issues we face in our new fiscal year.  Financially, we are doing pretty good! Now  that you know, what will you do?

Gaston County Approves the FY 2017 Budget

During the last two years Gaston County has adopted leading edge budget practices in an effort to ensure that community and county commission priorities are as closely aligned with expenditures as possible. In fact, the implementation of the leading edge Priority Based Budgeting (PBB) methods have further streamlined an already award winning budgetary process in Gaston County.  We also take pride in the fact that the foremost authority on governmental budgeting, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), has recognized Gaston County for excellence in its budget process for the last several years.  In addition, strong financial management practices was a major factor in a recent bond rating upgrade by Standard and Poor’s for Gaston County which enables the county to obtain more favorable interest rates in the financing of school debt. This bond rating upgrade will save the county tens of thousands of dollars.

Gaston County’s general fund budget for FY 17 is approximately $202 million. Although this may seem like a great deal of money to most people, most of what Gaston County does is mandated.   In other words, Gaston County has limited discretion in the activities it performs.  Despite the mandates, the county does have the ability and the responsibility to ensure that all activities are performed in an efficient manner.  PBB enables Gaston County’s managers to be more intentional and results oriented in their deployment of scarce resources, regardless of whether a particular program is mandated or discretionary.

Producing Gaston County’s annual budget is an arduous process involving months of intensive work. Typically, budget requests exceed available funds by a substantial margin and this year a total of over $25 million was trimmed from departmental and external requests in order to produce a budget that is balanced.  The FY 17 budget would be flat except for the fact that $3 million in additional debt service for two new schools and $1.5 million in teacher supplements are included.  These are expenditures that have considerable merit. Overall, Gaston County departmental budgets are flat for FY 17.  There are several significant expense items on the horizon, however.  These include the need to make a variety of infrastructure improvements which have been deferred for several years and upgrade the public safety radio communication system.  Leading expense categories for FY 17 in Gaston County are illustrated below:

Mathers pie chartFortunately, Gaston County anticipates revenue growth in coming years. Both property and sales tax revenues are expected to continue to grow and this will ease the financial strain that Gaston County has felt since the beginning of the recession.  In addition, the increase in debt service over the next two fiscal years will decline as older debt is retired.  Continued fiscal restraint on the part of county departments will also be necessary and desirable but, in general, Gaston County’s financial outlook is favorable.  Anticipated revenue growth for FY 17 is shown below.

Mathers graphLooking to the Future

There is a widespread belief that Gaston County is poised to achieve the kind of progress that will lead to greater economic parity with several of our regional neighbors. Some lament the fact that Gaston has fallen behind more affluent parts of the metro area and yet there are specific reasons that growth has been more gradual here.  Actually, considering the persistent generational poverty and other challenges confronting Gaston County, our performance has been quite strong in recent years.  Unemployment has fallen to around the state average and many of the jobs lost during the decline of the textile industry have been replaced.  Indeed, we now need to develop more industrial property which fits the needs of prospective industries and the FY 17 budget sets aside money for that purpose.

There is most assuredly room for continued advancement and if genuine collaboration in the public interest occurs there is reason for considerable optimism. Gaston County recognizes these needs and has made a variety of investments that we hope will yield excellent returns.  Colin Powell once said “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”  In order to achieve the success we all desire for Gaston County, we must allow our collective optimism to brush aside minor differences in a manner that promotes the common good.  Although every individual and all the organizational entities in Gaston County have a natural tendency to protect their own interests, lets’ focus on mutual efforts that will yield universal benefits as we design an even brighter future.

Earl Mathers
Gaston County Manager

 

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Is It Time For a Leadership Tune-up?

SEABROOK SAYS: Many in Gaston County will not like this. It speaks frankly, boldly and directly to all of us. Read and study it anyhow!

Why are we stalling when it comes to progress? Is it time for a leadership tune-up?

At a Gastonia Rotary Club meeting recently, a UNC professor talked about “Big Data” – the relentless electronic collection of information about consumers and their habits (if you shop at Target or Wal-Mart, they already know what you’re going to buy next). Success will follow the companies that use this Big Data to understand shopper habits today so that they can predict them in the future. The other businesses that ignore trends (more than 80% of them) will fail because — as the professor put it — “they spend too much time focused on today at the cost of preparing for tomorrow.”

Is that the problem here in our little slice of North Carolina? Do we have the kind of leadership at the city and county levels that can focus on today and tomorrow, and tie the two together with intelligent decisions that keep us moving forward? This is what we need to ask them: Are they solving real problems in ways that will stand the test of time?

In my 20 years as a Gastonia resident, I’ve seen some wonderful examples of visionary growth including the Gem of Ashley; Holy Angels; the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden; the US National Whitewater Center; our hospital; the Carolina Thread Trail; the Crowder’s Mountain Ridgeline Trail; and, most recently Artspace and the Loray Mill. But none of these fabulous achievements happened easily or quickly, and sometimes they had to fight their way to fruition. Why? We have the people who possess the creativity, passion and energy for impressive achievements, so why aren’t we doing more and at a faster clip? Why are we so far behind our neighbors in adjoining counties when it comes to creating a hip, lively place to live and work? Why won’t we embrace change?

In a Gaston Gazette article titled “’Religious Freedom act prompts questioning of our image” (April 3, 2015), executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission Donny Hicks had this to say: “Regardless of how you feel (about a social issue),” he said, “when you look at it from a state perspective and think about job creation, you’re going to have to take a progressive approach or eventually there are going to be some repercussions to it.” He’s right: when we are viewed as being so desperately out of synch with modern thinking, it invites mockery and encourages new businesses to look elsewhere. We need to pull ourselves out of the rut in which we’re entrenched. Do our elected officials have the courage to envision a vibrant future and make the hard – possibly unpopular — decisions to get us there?

When I was studying for a master’s degree in leadership, one truth I discovered is that great leaders are rare. Even the very definition of the word “leadership” is a hotly debated topic among academics. But despite its elusive meaning, we all know great leadership when we see it: Winston Churchill; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Eleanor Roosevelt; Rudy Giuliani in the wake of September 11; and now Pope Francis and his courageous stand on climate change. Despite their obvious differences, all these individuals share two core qualities that partly define them as leaders: 1) they put their own interests aside in service of the greater good; and 2) they hold a vision for the future that guides each of their decisions and all of their actions. A third quality is that they inspire followship, even when the ideas they promote are new and potentially fraught.

That’s a little bit of what leadership is. Leadership has nothing to do with position. People often mistakenly identify themselves as leaders because of their title. Just because you are a CEO or a president or an elected official doesn’t mean you know how to lead. Genuine leadership is a skill that comes from a lifetime of working at it, humbly and with purpose, not overnight due to election results or a job promotion.

True leaders know that stasis leads to decay and eventually death. As we struggle to become something other than the butt of others’ jokes, we have to ask 1) do we have the right people leading us forward? 2) do they follow through on important projects? 3) are we willing to summon our own personal leadership and demand that they focus only on the issues relevant to forward-thinking growth and development?

Do we want to be a living city or a museum caught up in the past? We don’t have the advantage of “Big Data” to drive our decisions, but all we need to do is look around at what other towns and counties have done with their limited resources and ask whether we can do a better job with ours. I believe we have the people and the passion to become someplace great, but whether we do or not will come down to leadership, or the lack of it. Before you vote, ask your candidates what they’re willing to do to drive meaningful change and innovation. It’s time to put our elected officials’ feet to the fire and demand creative, collaborative, visionary action focused on what will help us grow. And if they can’t stand the heat, they need to get out of the kitchen to make room for others who can.

Janice Holly Booth is the former CEO of three nationally-based non-profits, including Gastonia’s Girl Scouts of the Pioneer Council, from 1997 to 2009. She holds a master’s degree in Leadership and has written extensively on the topics of developing personal leadership, and how leaders make decisions in the face of fear.

Reviving the American Dream

By Earl Mathers, Gaston County Manager

The following is strictly my personal opinion. Working in Washington, DC more than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to engage David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, as a speaker for a conference I was hosting.  Mr. Walker had the bully pulpit In DC because he held a position in which he had ready access to economic and fiscal information at the highest levels, a first rate team of professionals and could not be fired by anyone for speaking out for the duration of his fifteen-year term.  At one point I asked Mr. Walker if people on the Hill were listening to him and his response was something like “very rarely”.

During that time and for some years before, he and others were devoted to educating Congress on the perils of maintaining our questionable financial management practices as a nation.  This miscarriage of fiduciary responsibility is well known to most observers of the American political process and generally involves the avoidance of fiscal discipline.  Specifically, Congress and the President have ignored looming problems with Social Security, Medicare and the need for both entitlement reform and fiscal restraint to deal with our national debt which exceeds $17 trillion.  In addition, we have failed to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote economic vitality and American competitiveness. All of these problems were set forth more recently by the Boyles-Simpson Commission which was authorized by President Obama.  Like Mr. Walker’s earlier recommendations, the work by Boyles Simpson was disregarded despite the fact that the remedies for our fiscal problems have been known for many years.

This recalcitrance is troubling locally for a number of reasons. In coming decades, servicing the national debt and covering the costs of Social Security and Medicare will consume ever larger portions of the federal budget.  Local governments deliver a broad array of services that are essential for our citizens.  Everyone in local government has seen a recent decline in both intergovernmental transfers and grants.  These forms of revenue support many types of locally delivered services and may be irreplaceable considering the limitations of local revenue generation capacity.  Secondly, we are informed that succeeding generations of Americans will not be able to sustain the same levels of economic prosperity their parents have enjoyed.  Finally, our weakened financial condition makes us more vulnerable to all sorts of calamities and inhibits our nation’s ability to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote future economic vibrancy and quality of life.  In short, abdication of fiduciary responsibility at the federal level will have a trickle-down effect on local government and citizens.

Although the remedies to these problems are far from painless, the solutions are well known.  The real obstacles seem to be the lack of political will to address these challenges and an operating environment in Washington which is scandalously polarized.  Ultimately, the repercussions of this inaction on the part of Congress and the President will be borne by American taxpayers.  Various groups, including the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, have pointed out that correcting our fiscal imbalance can be accomplished in a gradual manner that supports economic growth and protects the most vulnerable in society. Delaying action, however, simply exacerbates the problem and extends the pain further into the future.  Instead of politics as usual and lame attempts to deflect blame, America desperately needs strong bipartisan leadership at the national level that is willing to take decisive action.  Climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves may require a generation of belt tightening.  The alternatives of continued brinksmanship, a gradual decline in American influence and the inability to address strategic priorities is even less appealing.  It is time for Congress and the President to revive the American Dream.