Q&A: Petty talks time as county commissioner

Posted 5/3/19

PITTSBORO ­— Chatham County Commissioner Walter Petty took the entire Board of Commissioners by surprise April 15 when he announced his resignation, effective at the end of the month.

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Q&A: Petty talks time as county commissioner

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PITTSBORO ­— Chatham County Commissioner Walter Petty took the entire Board of Commissioners by surprise April 15 when he announced his resignation, effective at the end of the month.

The Chatham County GOP has already announced its recommendation for a replacement, Ernie Andrew Wilkie of Goldston. Wilkie is a Chatham County native and Chatham Central High School alumnus. He ran a business in Sanford for 34 years and created a scholarship fund at Chatham Central that awards money annually to four Chatham Central grads.

Prior to his final day as a commissioner, Petty answered some questions for the News + Record about why he first ran for the board, his accomplishments and what he hopes to see out of his successor.

Why did you want to be on the board of commissioners in the first place?

I never had any political ambitions. I was approached in 2006 and declined with no second thoughts. In 2010, I was approached again by others. We were coming off a bad economic time and things just seemed different. This time, I couldn’t get it off my mind. I have always enjoyed serving others but never considered politics to be that vehicle. I argued that I had no government experience, but people told me that’s what they were looking for. I decided to give it a chance and here we are nine years later.

What was your first priority when you first entered office, and why?

When I came in office, we were faced with 91 percent of our revenue coming from residential tax base. Over half of our workforce worked outside the county and 65 percent of spending was outside of the county. We needed to balance our revenue source, bring employment and consumer spending home. So my first priority was to create an environment that would encourage new business and the expansion opportunity for existing businesses in the county. That growth would diversify and expand the tax base producing the revenue needed to operate the county. It would also provide much needed employment opportunity.

I also looked for places to maintain or cut spending. I wanted to at least maintain the tax rate if possible. To accomplish this meant focusing on the core functions of government: education, law enforcement, and human services. I learned a lot in those days about funded and unfunded mandates that were required of the county. It wasn’t an easy task and I didn’t like doing some of the things needed, but tough decisions had to be made. Some people were happy and others not so much, but it accomplished the intended purpose.

We now want to cover a few things you said in your resignation letter. First, you said you were proud of a “prolonged period of ZERO tax increase.” Why was that so important for you?

Establishing a solid and steady tax base sends a strong message to citizens and businesses. It says a county is fiscally conservative and financially solid. Businesses look at long term results, they interpret steady and low taxes as a good place to invest for their future. If taxes are consistently increasing, they know their operating cost will do the same and will look for other places to do business.

Another issue is the income disparity across the county. A tax increase for some wouldn’t be a blip on the radar, they would never notice it, but others just simply could not afford tax increases.

This financial approach also positioned the county to achieve AAA Bond rating. This rating allowed the county to borrow money at the lowest possible interest rate. The county was able to refinance existing loans and borrow new money saving taxpayers at least a few million dollars. 

With that said, there are times when taxes need to be raised because of increased operating cost and growth. When that time comes, every cost needs to be scrutinized and any increase needs to be incremental to prevent large increases.

You talked about trying to do your best “to stay from party politics or political agendas.” Have there been certain temptations to that which have been difficult to deal with? Has the office or the board changed in the last 9 years due to political agendas or the parties?

A commissioner is elected to set policy and see that the county runs efficiently and effectively in meeting the needs of the citizens they serve. My goal was to focus on the things that have a direct impact right here at home and not get caught up in issues at other government levels. Sometimes there is a temptation and tendency to participate on things outside our jurisdiction. That conviction and participation should be done on a personal basis, not as a board.

You spoke a couple times about schools, particularly an increase in funding and the “first of its kind bonus program for our teachers.” Why did you bring those things up? Did you see support of Chatham County Schools as important for your job, and why or why not?

As I mentioned earlier, education is a core function of government, so yes, funding from county government is important. I intentionally mentioned schools because Republicans typically get a bad rap when it comes to funding education. I’m proud of the working relationship between the school board and the commissioner board. Not very many counties can make that statement.

I was part of a team that was able to work across different boards and political parties for the good of Chatham students and teachers. That working relationship enabled us to developed a bonus program for teachers pay. We also had another first when successfully building a joint school and county garage to service and repair all county vehicles, a joint garage (that) saved citizens at least $2 million. Many people said a joint garage would not work and that they needed to operate separately. I argued there was no reason two facilities could not operate as one and we worked together for a successful venture.

In the recent years, with a Democratic majority on the board, did you feel your responsibilities change or effect wane? Or was it any different? It seemed to me like the other board members, who might have some disagreements on policies with you, respected you a lot. 

Even though we had a difference in opinion, we had a mutual respect. In resigning, the remaining board members made what I believe to be heartfelt comments and I am very grateful. Each one of us are an elected official and have an obligation to represent the people that elected us. Sometimes when defending our positions in debate, things were often said out of the way. Then you learn to put it aside and focus where there is common ground to accomplish something everyone can agree on.

But yes, I did feel like my effectiveness suffered under the new board majority because some of our goals were different. There were only a couple of major issues where we never reached full consensus. One was the process used for rezoning the county and the other is obviously spending. One must remember, when there is a difference of opinion the majority rules, that’s democracy. The direction of the county is in the hands of the voters every two years. The voters wanted something different the last election just like they did when I was elected in 2010.

As long as an issue doesn’t go against one’s core values, diversity and creativity are not a bad thing. These attributes can be instrumental in bringing new ways of getting things done.

As you leave the board, what do you see as the role of a county commissioner not just in the county government, but in the community? What do you hope your successor carries into the office?

Integrity is the most important attribute. I hope the new representative has an understanding that it is always the right time to do what is right.

Is there anything you did or didn’t do you wish you had more time to explore or explain? 

I would like to have accomplished district voting. I think that representation by a commissioner is best when they are confirmed by the people in the district they serve. Even though the commissioners work for the county as a whole, the people of a district want to know their voice is heard.

Reach Reporter Zachary Horner by email at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.


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