Scotland County's newest commissioner, Whit Gibson says that he already has a new appreciation for the challenges faced by county employees.
Gibson attended a marathon orientation session last week during which county department heads delivered presentations on their areas of responsibility.
Starting at 8:30 a.m. and lasting for nearly seven hours the orientation session equipped Gibson with information about the departments and their operation that he said will be of great importance to his work on the board.
“And there was also a lot that it really isn’t my job to be involved in but that I will use to inform my decisions,” Gibson said. “I really appreciated (Commissioner) Bob Davis being there. He would ask some questions that I knew he already knew the answers to, kind of acting as a big brother to me. It was a help.”
The department heads left the newly sworn commissioner with the impression that the county’s employees have a sober and realistic understanding of the county’s financial situation.
“They were not in there complaining about not having enough room or anything like that. Not one soul mentioned (complaints like that). To me that is an indication of them being in touch with the reality of the current economy in Scotland County.
“It was pretty apparent that these were people who have had to do as much as they could with diminishing resources for some time. That is a fact that we need to be aware of (on the board) as well.”
One practical concern that the department heads shared was over an abundance of outdated computer hardware.
“They said that they were dependent on technology but that a lot of it was outdated. Some departments had hardware that was aged by several years what was needed to run the software that was (the industry standard).”
While saying that their approach was realistic, Gibson pointed out that he did not believe that the county employees were pessimistic or negative in their outlook.
“The morale was as good as it could be in this present situation,” Gibson said, referring to cuts to pay and mandatory furloughs dished out in previous budgets.
Gibson suspects that the decision by the board to return half of what was cut to employees earlier this year has had a heartening effect.
“I think they are hopeful that when we can we will restore (the rest),” said Gibson, adding that he has made a priority out of making sure county workers know that the board is on their side.
Asked if restoring the remaining compensation and department funding was a priority, Gibson said that it is.
“But we need to be disciplined. I don’t think you go below the mandated fund balance levels to do it. We need to be better than that.”
Determining how much to restore and when as well as whether to cut services is difficult, especially as the economy sands continue to shift, said the long time Scotland County resident.
“We were doing so well for so long and maintaining the level of services we had, but that was relative to a much larger tax base. With a declining industry base, it has been hard to maintain services at the same level.
“Making some adjustments there is not an exact science, but somewhere in there lies the answer.”
Two other priorities, both of which he said he shares with newly elected board Chairman Guy McCook, are transparency in government and the improvement of the county’s customer service.
“When I was running, transparency was one of my main issues. That has not changed. That is something that we will constantly be working towards, whether in the budgeting or in making sure people understand how we determine our fund balance figures.”
Having worked for 30 years as clerk of court for the county, Gibson said that becoming more user-friendly was naturally an issue close to his heart.
“People who I hired, from the interview process on, they heard this sermon: ‘The people who come in here probably (are not happy to be here). It is not our job to make it worse.’ For the most part that applies to places like the inspection office, the tax office, the register of deeds – we should be as user friendly as possible.”
Addressing the hotly debated school funding formula, which requires the county to maintain a certain level of funding to the school system based on the average level of funding given to similarly classified counties, Gibson believes more attempts should be made to educate the public about school system funding.
“It is such a divisive issue that it needs increased public education — both on what the funding formula is and on what the education system in Scotland County is producing for the money that is spent by the tax payers.”
Having said during the campaign that he would not support a referendum on the matter, Gibson said that he still feels about the same.
But he added that he thought an improvement in the relationship between the school board and the board of commissioners had to be made, and that should include future joint meetings like the one held earlier this year.
Not naturally inclined to seek political office, Gibson said that he was encouraged to run by friends and family. Hesitating to compare himself to his parents and sisters — whom he said were “far better” than himself — Gibson does view his service on the board as a small part of their family legacy.
“This is something that I guess has been part of our family for some time,” said Gibson, whose father served in the US Army and whose mother was a long time church and Red Cross worker. Gibson said that his sisters also assisted the Red Cross in lives filled with selfless dedication to community.
“They would get up and help without even a thought. I’m not as good as them, but this is something that I hope I can do to help.”