What is a County Manager?

Article from CountyLines published in the March 2014 Edition
Written by: Todd McGee, Public Relations Director

It wasn’t too long ago that most counties in North Carolina did not have a professional county manager. Instead, the chairman of the board served as the top administrative official, signing contracts, preparing the budget and overseeing county staff in addition to fulfilling the duties of an elected official.

But in the past 40 years, county government - and county governance - has changed significantly. The responsibilities for counties have grown and become more complex. A manager must understand how state and federal laws and regulations impact distinct county service areas such as public health, human services and public safety, must be an expert at crafting and managing a budget, must be able to manage and motivate a large and diverse workforce, and must be able to partner with a governing board that can often have differing perspectives on which direction a county should go. In short, a county manager has to be part lawyer, part accountant, part human resources director and part mediator.

“The position has gotten much more complex and I think the roles have changed substantially,” said longtime Catawba County Manager Tom Lundy. “When I came into the profession, it was more like command and control. I think today the manager is much more of a facilitator, a community builder. We have to still have the management skill set, but I think there is much more of that facilitation and trying to build a community.”

Lundy began his career in county government in 1972, when he served an internship with Catawba County. It was around that time that the N.C. General Assembly updated the general statutes for county administration, strengthening the laws for the council-manager form of government. By the end of the decade, as counties began to provide more and more services for citizens, nearly every county in the state had hired a professional county manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the county and to implement the policies adopted by the elected Board of Commissioners.

“North Carolina has a history of strong, professional management,” said Lundy, who became Catawba County Manager in 1979. “Our forefathers were very astute when they built this form into the General Statutes. It provides for a unitary form of government.

“Where this plan works best is where you have a very strong partnership between the elected officials, managers and citizens. Managers are able to take the policies of elected officials and turn them into action. This frees the elected officials up to be more in tune with the citizens and to be more focused on those broad governing policies.”

Lundy pointed out a study in 2011 conducted by IBM that showed that local governments with the council-manager form of government were 10% more efficient. Lundy said the efficiencies saved taxpayers money and allowed those local governments to provide more services to citizens.

Lundy credited the UNC School of Government, the International City-County Management Association (ICMA), the N.C. City-County Managers Association (NCCCMA) and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for promoting the development of professional county managers. These organizations offer many training sessions designed specifically for county managers, keeping them current on all the service areas provided by counties as well as best practices for budgeting, managing human resources and other issues.

“We are so blessed in North Carolina to have the resources we have for managers,” he said. “The state association is such a robust organization. The School of Government is so wonderful. ICMA has been championing management for 100 years.

“Managers in this state are professionally trained thanks to their education and the tremendous work of the School of Government, and the excellent sessions put on by the NCACC and ICMA. Because of the extensive training, you’ve got managers who use best practices, who benchmark with other communities. A lot of research bears out that professionally managed cities and counties are much better for the citizens.”

County government has changed a lot during Lundy’s 4 decades in Catawba County. He has also seen a lot of changes in the county manager profession. When he first started, a medium-sized county like Catawba would be considered a stepping stone job for a professional manger. A manager would work a few years and then move up to a larger county.

Now, managers are staying for longer. Transylvania County Manager Artie Wilson has served as manager for that small mountain county for the past 22 years. He will be retiring Sept. 1. Jerry Ayscue has been serving as manager in Vance County, with a population of just over 45,000, for nearly 3 decades. Eighteen counties have had the same manager for at least the last 10 years, including in some of the more rural areas of the state like Bladen, Clay, Edgecombe and Swain counties.

“When I came into the profession, the adage or the advice was 3 years in a community and then go,” said Lundy. “What we found over the years is that managers are much more engaged and involved. The length of time that managers are staying has increased.

“I think that’s a good thing because you get invested in the community. Managers are staying longer and are having to live with the decisions and recommendations they are making.”

Lundy says he doesn’t see a return to the days when the chairman doubles as the county’s top administrator. Durham County Commissioner Brenda Howerton hopes he is correct. Durham recently went through the retirement of veteran county manager Mike Ruffin, who had led the county since 2000, except for a brief period in 2004. Howerton said that during the search for Ruffin’s successor, no thought was given to asking a commissioner to take over the reins.

“It just takes a different skill and knowledge from being a commissioner to being a manager,” said Howerton. “For a manager, you have to have all the training and all the experience, and you have to have someone who is an expert on the budget. I would not want to be a manager - being a commissioner is enough of a challenge.

“I always appreciated Mike and his acumen about keeping us informed and keeping the ship going. That’s what a manager does. He keeps the ship going.”

Lundy is confident that North Carolina will continue to develop strong county managers. Even though there is concern about a recent rash of retirements from veteran managers (as many as 30 counties have hired a manager since January 2013 or will hire a new 1 this year) and the increasing challenge of managing a complex county government, Lundy believes the profession will thrive.

In fact, Lundy says the variety is a key selling point when he speaks to students in one of the many Master’s in Public Administration programs offered in North Carolina. He says he does not hesitate when a student asks him about a career in local government.

“I wholeheartedly encourage them,” he said. “For young people, it is the scope and variety of activities that you get to be involved in. It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with people, to help build communities. If you like working with people, it is a great profession. You can actually see the results of your labor.”

That sentiment was expressed by Transylvania County Manager Artie Wilson when he informed the citizens of his county of his impending retirement after 22 years at the helm.

“I have enjoyed working for the people of the county, and have found my work to be very meaningful,” he said. “I am blessed to have a job that I love, and a job that makes a difference in peoples’ lives.”