Q&A TRANSCRIPT: Chatham County Manager talks budget, county operations, positives from COVID-19

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/8/20

Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne appeared a little more casual during his April 7 Zoom chat with the Chatham News + Record: no tie, no jacket. Then again, it's a whole different world for many people right now. LaMontagne chatted with the News + Record's Zachary Horner about county operations, preparations for next year's county budget and the positives he's taking from this time with COVID-19 affecting the county.

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Q&A TRANSCRIPT: Chatham County Manager talks budget, county operations, positives from COVID-19

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PITTSBORO — Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne appeared a little more casual during his April 7 Zoom chat with the Chatham News + Record: no tie, no jacket. Then again, it's a whole different world for many people right now.

LaMontagne chatted with the News + Record's Zachary Horner about county operations, preparations for next year's county budget and the positives he's taking from this time with COVID-19 affecting the county.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. For the full video, head to facebook.com/ChathamNR.

Has anything you’ve experienced your nearly 20 years of working in local government prepared you for what you’re experiencing now?

Nothing like this before. This is definitely a unique situation, unprecedented for me. The changes that we're having to make and how we're having to adapt to doing business in this landscape is unlike anything I ever imagined we would do, frankly. So pretty tricky times for everybody — really tough for the economy, tough for our small businesses, for all the employees out there. So I'm just looking forward to looking back at this.

What has been the the biggest difference for you from your job before COVID-19 to now?

What I would say the biggest change with this is the way we've had to limit our face-to-face contact with the public. Never in a million years thought that in public service, in all my years of public service, that we would agree to limit how much face-to-face time we had with the public. But that is of critical importance right now. I mean, that's something that I need to do for the public and I need to do for my employees, our staff here. It’s a scary time for a lot of people. It's a scary time for the public. So that was obviously necessary, but it was really difficult decision to make to do that.

However, I gotta say, I'm really proud of the way the staff have stepped up. We continue to provide services that are really critically needed for everybody here, especially in hard times like we're having now. We're just adapting to this new way of doing it and really stepping up and still providing those services, but just doing it in a very different way than I ever imagined we would. So we're learning a lot.

Has there been a department that — I know you don't play favorites as the county manager —has been really kind of or one or two even that's been really cool for you to see if county departments stepping up in a time like this and doing things differently? A couple examples?

Well, it's hard to pick one. There are so many different ways of looking at that. So in times like this, early on in this, the health department has just been unbelievable, (played) a critical role when we had our the first case here, which was only the second case in the state. We had great people working on that. They handled it perfectly. We worked well with the governor's office, with DHHS [N.C. Department of Health and Human Services].

Since then you're talking about emergency management. We're planning for this peak in medical care, all of the issues we have to deal with trying to find PPP [Personal Protective Equipment], figure out how to distribute that, looking at distribution locations, taking inventory and placing orders. So they've really stepped up to that. Those are the departments (where) their core business is taking care of this situation.

At the same time, we've got folks like our parks and recreation department (that are) still reaching out to their public doing things. Like I pointed out last week to some of our staff, that one of our staff members with Parks and Recreation drew out a big Chutes and Ladders game on the parking lot with chalk and sent it out over social media with instructions how to play, how to play as a parent. My kids are older now, but I would have loved to have my kids draw out this chalk Chutes and Ladders game on the sidewalk, on the driveway, and spend all day drawing it and then play it for a couple of days. That's a great time consumer for a parent, kids to do that. Just a different way of reaching out to their public. The Council on Aging sending out exercises to their patrons and things that they do at home to stay healthy and stay active. There are our conference center staff actually serving as inventory folks and taking in materials at the Ag Center or conference center now as our distribution location for supplies.

It just goes across the board. Everybody has just really stepped up. Some of our departments are slowing down a little bit, as you would imagine. Others are really accelerating and all this time, the ones that are slowing down are looking for positives. I’ve stressed to all the department heads to look for the bright spots in this one. What can you do to get things accomplished? We've always been very lean in staff. We're not overstaffed in any department. We look at what backlog of information you need to enter into databases. What do you have that you've said, “Oh, I wish we had time to do this”? Now's the time, let's find time to do this. And we're seeing sharing between all departments. Everybody is helping another department out if they need help with staff. And I've always said all along, it's one of my things that I push to all of our staff — some of our most important customers are our residents. But another very important customer is other departments within the county. When we work well together, we serve our public the best

Everybody in their own way has just done a phenomenal job really, in this time, this time of not clear direction on how this is going to go. In these unsure times, they've done a wonderful job.

Is there a kind of attitude or overarching goal/strategy that you guys are carrying into this time for how you conduct business as local government, how you serve residents?

Well, the word of the day for all of this has been “adaptation.” We really are just adapting and I think that is the best description of how we're having to deal with this situation. We know these restrictions are so different than we've had before. So we need to adapt, and I've left it to each department, they know their customer base the best. I wanted to know from each department how to adapt your services to still provide the services that you have to. Granted, for parks, we can’t open play the playgrounds, right, so we can’t offer all the services. But most all of our services are still being offered, but just in a different way.

I know you guys are working on the budget pretty much as soon as you put the budget from the previous year to bed and working on projections and all that — and we're going to have a new wrinkle in it this year with the sales tax, which we'll get to — but how has this affected the process of budget preparation, and then revenue projections, not just for this year currently, that you take into the next year’s budget before next year and for what you guys might bring in?

That is a really good question. I wish I had a crystal ball to know how it's gonna work out. The tough part for me is this was looking to be a great budget here. And now the last quarter of this, our sales tax revenues, which is a significant portion of our budget that's just going to fall off our last quarter. We think that April, May, June are going to be really tough for sales tax revenue. So that takes a hit in this year, but we were planning for next year and now we're looking at some of these revenue projections that we're getting from the League of Municipalities and Association of County Commissioners.

This is all unprecedented. So having a good idea of when the economy will bounce back from this, and how Chatham County would be different than the rest of the state, is still yet to be seen. I just don't know. When we hit this peak of cases and start to come down the other side, we still need to maintain the social distancing and all these mitigation strategies that we have in place to keep it from rebounding. We certainly don't want to see another peak hit mid-summer, so we have to maintain that. So the big question is, when are we able to get back to business as usual? Just don't know when that's going to be.

I'm really hoping that all the smart people in the whole world working on vaccines, working together, will come up with a vaccine soon. That would be a wonderful thing if we can see that sooner than later, or at least treatment for some of these severe cases, to keep this the intensive care unit surge from happening, then I'll think we'll start to see some relaxing from that.

But it's just really impossible to know. So we're certainly being conservative about next year. We don't know if this continues through January or we have another resurgence in the fall. That could really change a lot of our estimates for revenue.

Help residents who may be watching this, Chatham citizens, understand how much that kind of approach and budget, that going more conservative, affects them as people who are the beneficiaries of the services that people paying the taxes that go into that budget. How does that affect them?

We have two different things in budget that we look at continuation and expansion. Continuation actually includes a little bit of growth within our departments anyway. You can just view that is the status quo. Continuing business as usual, that’s our continuation — what does each department need to be able to just keep doing business the way they have done it? Expansion is we need to add staff, we need to add programs, all these other things. When we look at this limitation in our revenue, we have to have a balanced budget. Unlike the state and federal government, we have to have a balanced budget. We can't overspend what our revenue projections are. So when we're having to be conservative, that means we have to look at, can we continue business as usual, continuation, from the previous year? Maybe we don't look at expansion this coming budget because we wouldn't have the revenue to support it.

So those are decisions we've got to make yet. We're still looking at these revenue projections. And again, it's a difficult crystal ball. It comes with really bad directions on how to use it right now. So the projections we're seeing are statewide. And we know even in the 2007-2008 recession that we had here, the Triangle fared better than a lot of the state. And I consider Chatham County to be part of the triangle area. were part of the Triad and part of the Triangle, which is kind of unique situation for Chatham. But we've seen in the past that we have recovered better and faster than a lot of areas of the state. I'm hoping that'll be the case here. But it's difficult to know, we don't we don't know what a pandemic like this recovery looks like. The last one was over 100 years ago and budgets were a lot different than I'm sure

The sales tax options was slated to go into effect in October, which would affect next year. First of all, is that still scheduled to have that on the books in October?

So right now it is. The board has already asked the voters to vote on it, and the voters voted to approve it. So the next step is to just move forward with initiating that initiating that tax. Then we get it to the (N.C.) Department of Revenue, and like you said, that could be October 1 would be the earliest that it would be implemented. Right now we're still in that schedule. Who knows what October will look like at this point? I'm hoping that October is a lot better than we are right now. That certainly is everyone's hope, I'm sure. But right now, the intention is to keep moving along unless I hear different from the board of commissioners.

One thing I know you guys have talked about, both from the county level and the commissioner level, of wanting to see change at is broadband access. Are you seeing this become more of an issue right now and what can be done?

I'd say it couldn’t be more true right now. This is just a prime example of that. Who knew that this would be the way our students are trying to learn and coming into the close of semester? It's really crazy to think how much we're depending on that now. We were talking about Chatham County here, but there's other parts of North Carolina, other parts of this country, they’re dealing with this same problem. This is a not just Chatham County issue, not just North Carolina issue, it’s a national issue. Rural broadband, things have to change. And in North Carolina, we're being held back by legislation by the big providers, and it's very discouraging, and I'm hoping that a situation like this will really get the legislators to look at that.

I had a conversation last week with (N.C.) Representative Robert Reives. And we were talking about just that, and he said that they're really pushing in Raleigh. This is an opportunity to see this difference. Changes need to be made to really change the way we're handling rural broadband and open it up for local governments to do a little bit more, help provide this service out there.

Think of all the teleworkers. Now so many people that need to work from home, they shouldn't be (at work). They're in a vulnerable population that demographics is vulnerable to this. They don't need to be at work. I've got people that are working because they they can't work at home. They're coming into the office. That being said, we are keeping our offices as safe as we can. We're practicing social distancing, cleaning surfaces and washing hands and keeping our distance from people from each other even in the office. We're fortunate to be able to do that.

But yeah, rural broadband is something that we've been talking about for years, and we've been trying to get these changes to happen the legislature. I'm hoping this is the thing that really pushes us over the edge.

For people who may not not be aware, what would it look like for you guys to become involved in helping broadband come or even being a part of creating broadband in the area? What would that look like?

Well, we'd like to be able to provide our vertical assets, so towers, water tanks, things like that to the providers. We’d like to be able to install fiber, fiber-optic cable, and let that be leased out to different internet service providers. We would help with the capital expense of getting it out to these rural areas. There's any number of options for that we could look at for this. That's just the simplest to me, is just let us help get the providers to provide those services out into those unincorporated, these rural areas that are unincorporated.

Right now, even providers that do run cable fiber optic out into some of these rural areas aren't providing the service to residents. They don't have the bandwidth. Maybe that's something we could assist with as a government. If that's something that our residents needed, then we could find a way to do that.

It is a utility. It’s it's the old days of telephone. Back when telephones first came out, that’s how you got emergency services. You needed a telephone in every home. Internet is that way now. Everybody knows that. It is something that is pervasive throughout every everyone's home. They need internet service. It is in my mind, absolutely utility but it's not being treated as one yet.

Couple more questions um, you know, firstly, how are how are you in your family you know, handling this time?

We're doing well. Won’t lie — this has been a very stressful time to be manager. But it's been good. I've got an incredible team. Chatham County staff is just incredible, everyone that works here. It's unbelievable how to me how well everyone has just adapted and stepped up. I'm not hearing a bunch of complaining and wanting to go home, it's everybody wants to help. Everybody wants to help everybody. We're getting people that are that want to help call some of our senior population that are shut-in. They want to do check-in calls with them. Everybody's just helping other departments every way they possibly can and stepping up any way they can. For that, I'm so thankful with the staff that I have here.

As far as my family they are doing well. We’re about to drive each other crazy. I've got two daughters. So one’s in college, she's a senior in college and her graduation is canceled. So she doesn't get to walk. That's unfortunate. I've got a daughter who's a junior in high school, who's trying to figure out how she's supposed to finish this semester, that I'm trying to figure out too, and how she's going to apply for college, but they're doing really well and my wife is doing great. So hanging in there.

Has there been anything that you've taken from this last month or so or changes that you've made that you think the county might want to carry on into the future after this is all done? Anything new that you guys have tried or had to do that's like, “Oh, this is actually pretty good”?

Yeah, that's interesting you ask that because I've been given a lot of thought to that is, how do we come out of this? You know, we've learned a lot of things. Honestly, what we're doing right now is interesting.

We have meetings. I’m meeting with somebody in Raleigh, or in Burlington or somewhere, Sanford. And I've always said, “Oh, you want to meet here? You want me to come there?” We can do this [video call]. I think we can save a lot of mileage. I think everybody's learned that this is not a bad way to meet. Zoom are these other online platforms have been pretty good to work with.

I think a lot of our departments have also seen that not only do these ways of reaching out to the public, these different ways of reaching out the public work during this type of time, they can really be additive in regular times, You can still reach out to them a bit, it's just more. We can reach a lot of different people in a different way while we're still reaching the other people in our traditional ways. We've seen a lot of a increases in people signing up for online permit applications in planning and building inspections that were kind of holdouts and saying, “I’ll just keep doing paper copies and coming into the office and hand them in,” and then realizing “Oh, wow, our online portal is so much better.” They appreciate doing that. That's better for us. It's been easier for record-keeping. So there have been a number of things that are really good in that.

It’s also really solidified our staff. I feel like everybody is solidified in this working together that I've always pushed, departments working together. And it's a great time for them to meet each other, do good things for the county in a different way. So I think a lot of that will continue on That's a lot of things we preach around here a lot. The Leadership Academy that we have gets everybody working interdepartmental,, just across departments. This is kind of one of those exercises has been really an unexpected positive from that, but good stuff that's happening.

By no means don't mean to downplay the health issues that a lot of people are facing. I want to make sure I point that out. My heart goes out to a lot of people who are suffering from through a lot of this and a lot of people who are out of jobs right now. We know that, I know that, and I feel for those people very deeply for what's going on. But we do try to find the positives on our side of how we're finding good things to do from this. It's nice to look for that silver lining.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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