Reader writes: Clayton, county cooperate on many efforts

March 21, 2014 

Towns, county do work together

The media rightly serve as a check on the will and ways of government. As both a citizen and local government practitioner, I am grateful that the media fulfill this role because it helps protect our freedom and hold people accountable. I have often enjoyed that your newspaper will, through its editorial content, provoke discussion of topics important to the overall welfare of the citizens of Clayton and Johnston County as a whole.

Most recently you spoke to the matter of intergovernmental communication and consolidation of services. While I am sure the item was well intended, I strongly differ with the perspective offered. In actuality, the Town of Clayton enjoys a very close relationship with Johnston County. In just the past month or two, we have met and worked on matters of mutual interest, including wastewater-treatment solutions for local industries, joint grant applications, emergency service radio communications, animal control, environmental protection and nuisance abatement.

County Manager Rick Hester and I meet or speak on the phone every week, almost without exception. I meet, email or speak with Chris Johnson, the county’s economic-development director, multiple times every month. It’s the same with Chandra Coats, the utilities director, and Jamie Guerrero, the stormwater administrator. In addition, town staff interacts with them more frequently than I do. As town manager, I meet with County Commissioners’ Chairman Jeff Carver on a routine basis, and I also frequently discuss matters with Commissioner Allen Mims. Our elected officials interact with the commissioners on a more frequent basis than I do.

Similarly, we in Clayton have come to be included in a monthly meeting with the county, Smithfield and Selma on economic-development issues. It is an informal group of business leaders, staff and mayors who discuss and identify impediments to countywide economic development or look for opportunities that would benefit us all. Never once have I heard anyone in that group express an opinion or take a position that was anything other than cooperative and progressive.

In another case, Smithfield recently hosted a meeting for all Johnston County municipal electric providers. I also enjoy a very mutually beneficial relationship with the Town of Benson. We have shared staff to assist with specialized training, partnered on a wastewater-treatment project, worked together on stormwater compliance and networked with each other on employee wellness programs. Long story short, we all talk.

It was hard not to chuckle at the premise that the reason we don’t talk (which is clearly incorrect) is because we want power. I have worked in three different counties over the course of my career. The reason I like working in Johnston County is because the people here are regular folks. The people who work in government here are regular folks. The vast majority of people who are elected to office in Johnston County and who work with the county or the towns have chosen to do so because they like the community and want to contribute to it.

That does not mean people in local government do not value a degree of independence. Each community has and desires to maintain an independent identity. That is a good thing. The concept of community independence is parallel with the concept of competition in the marketplace, and we all know a competitive marketplace is a healthy marketplace. A community that knows how and when to cooperate but also maintains a degree of local independence is a healthy community. I want to work with Smithfield and Selma when we are competing together against the likes of Apex and Cary. At the same time, I want Clayton to compare favorably to Smithfield and Selma when we are competing against each other. I expect they feel the same way. They certainly should feel that way because it makes all of us better.

As to your example on water rates, why would you suppose that rates would be lower if there was no competition in the marketplace for water? Perhaps if we in Clayton know we need to compare favorably with Smithfield or Selma on rates and fees, then we work harder to control our costs. If it doesn’t matter what water costs because rates are the same everywhere, then where is the incentive to keep rates down?

The towns and the county do consolidate services where it makes sense to do so. The Town of Clayton was forced by state regulations to implement a stormwater-management program. The county already had a highly functional program. Rather than duplicate the service, we subscribed to the county program. I believe other towns do as well. The county also recently chose to implement a local erosion- and sedimentation-control program. This program had until recently been administered by the state. Again, in the interest of better service to the community, Clayton chose to subscribe to the county program.

We have a town-owned and town-operated wastewater-treatment plant, but for the past two capacity expansions, rather than build a new plant or expand the existing plant, we purchased capacity from other units of government, not only Johnston County but also the City of Raleigh. Most recently, the town and the county came together to meet the wastewater-treatment needs of Grifols, the largest private employer in the county.

Bottom line, the reason that we don’t simply abolish each little unit of local government and operate as a single entity, let’s call it the Townty of ClayJohnSelFieldSon, is because our communities and our people have different identities and expectations. We foster those identities and meet those expectations on the local level.

We do cooperate when doing so is consistent with meeting local expectations. We communicate because we are all just regular folks trying to get the job done, but we remain independent because our people value a locally responsive service provider. By the way, unless I am badly mistaken, I believe I have seen both Smithfield and Selma’s ladder trucks on a major fire scene, oddly enough, working together.

Steve Biggs

Clayton town manager

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