Story By: Scott D. Yost
The Republican-led Guilford County Board of Commissioners has been around for so long that it’s sometimes hard to remember what county government looked like before 2012, when the Republicans took over control of the board from the Democrats.
At his last regular commissioners meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19, outgoing Chairman of the Board Jeff Phillips, who didn’t run to keep his District 5 seat this year, reminded everyone of what county government looked like before the last eight Republican years.
Here’s how it was in a nutshell: Commissioners would routinely shout at each other at meetings; domestic violence in the county was rampant; property taxes were routinely increased; the county Animal Shelter and the Department of Social Services were in complete chaos; and the county’s mental health administration was in shambles.
“I want to thank our citizens most of all, for the opportunity to serve them in this capacity,” Phillips said, to began his recounting of county history. “District 5 residents put me here twice, but I have always tried to serve all the citizens to the best of my abilities. I know we all do.”
Then Phillips pointed to the achievements of the Board of Commissioners over the past eight years. Those were things that, objectively, have been very impressive.
“We’ve done some historic things in my view in the past eight years,” he said, adding that the accomplishments of the board were “too many to mention.”
“We, together – this group has cleaned up a lot of messes,” the outgoing chairman continued. “We have addressed a lot of issues over the past eight years.”
“When you walk into the seat in the midst of the highest domestic violence homicide rate in the state of North Carolina, and when you walk out with one of the lowest – if not the lowest – that’s success by any measure,” he said.
The Board of Commissioners, with a good deal of leadership from Democratic Commissioner Kay Cashion on the issue, all came together about seven years ago to move forward with the Guilford County Family Justice Centers – now in Greensboro and High Point. Those address domestic violence and seem to be doing a great job at it based on the statistics.
Phillips said that the Family Justice Center model implemented by Guilford County is “a model for the nation” when it comes to collaboration and “off the charts lifesaving” work.
Phillips also pointed out that the Guilford County Social Services Department was in complete and utter disarray and the Board of Commissioners selected current Guilford County Health and Human Services Director Heather Skeens to head up the Social Services Department – who, with her “phenomenal team,” turned it into “one of the best-run social services departments in the state.”
The Guilford County Animal Shelter was in a similar state of disarray at the time. Phillips said the board named Jorge Ortega as director of Animal Services, which has “become known on this board’s watch, as one of the best in the state.”
Phillips also pointed to major transition in mental health services the board made after getting together with all the players in the community.
“We made the mental health care of our citizens a top priority once again,” Phillips said.
The county joined efforts with Cone Health and Sandhills Center, a management entity that oversees mental health care in Guilford County, and formed “a comprehensive and effective health care model” featuring a single point of entry. Phillips pointed out that the cutting-edge model is only being implemented in a few places in the country.
“Folks, that’s incredible progress,” he said.
He also pointed out another thing that he’s proud of: The county’s school funding over the last eight years.
“You may have heard otherwise from time to time, but this board has committed a greater percentage of our budget than any board in the history of Guilford County government [to the schools],” he said. “And, frankly, it’s not even close.”
He also said the board had been fiscally responsible as it has worked tirelessly.
“Please note this very important distinction as well,” he said. “This progress and so much more has been done without raising your property taxes – not once, over this eight-year period. In fact, we’ve decreased the tax rate three times.”
He pointed out that it was actually decreased four times since 2012, if one counted the lowering of the tax rate after a countrywide revaluation.
“Suffice it to say our accomplishments and our progress over the last eight years is historic. Past boards have never done more, nor is it likely they will ever do as much to make the county run in a civil, professional and fiscally responsible manner.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of what we have done together,” he concluded.
The outgoing chairman also gave thanks for the “Incredible leadership of County Manager Marty Lawing, who has been right by our side, steering this ship.”
“We would not have accomplished all that we have without Marty and all of the directors who are here with us this evening,” he said. “With this board’s guidance and Marty’s leadership, Guilford County’s culture was essentially rebuilt on our watch. We have, without question, become more professional, fiscally responsible, citizen focused and public servant minded.”
He added that 2020 has been a particularly trying year due to COVID-19.
He said that obviously this had been the most challenging year ever for the county, but he added of county leaders and citizens, “We have worked hard together in the adversity.”