Siler City’s town manager reflects on his first few months on the job

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SILER CITY — The town of Siler City has a lot on its plate, which means that Hank Raper — just three months into his new position as town manager — does, too.

Among his most pressing challenges: the town has been placed under a water moratorium by the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, complicating Siler City’s efforts to attract industries to the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) megasite, which anticipates landing a large employer in the coming weeks.

And managing growth where it’s a certainty, but infrastructure is limited, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of to-dos on Raper’s list.

The News + Record recently spoke with Raper to discuss his first few months on the job — his first day was back on May 16 — and get a sense of how he’s responding to the town’s challenges.

These questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

You arrived at a busy time — you started work a day before the town’s municipal election and in the midst of growth (and potential growth) that would put a strain any town and its administration. You have a new mayor (albeit a veteran member of the commission) and some other new faces. Can you make any comment on your and your board’s approach to addressing all the challenges and opportunities the town has before it?

RAPER: I’ve gone around trying to talk with the staff, talk to members of the community and the board individually, trying to learn the community, learn the issues and challenges that we’re facing before trying to take a lot of big initiatives, while also having to deal with a lot of challenges.

So it’s been a lot going on, all at one time, but I think it’s great. With just having had an election, it’s new people coming on board. With new key staff hires that we’ve had and a new town manager, I think it’s a great opportunity to hit the “reset button” with the strategic plan together and start the course for where we want to go as a team of the next few years.

We know the CAM site is poised and teed up for landing a tenant that will certainly change the landscape for Siler City. What’s your long-term outlook for how a major company choosing to locate here might make significant positive differences?

A company coming here brings an opportunity for that company to get involved as an organization itself to contribute to the needs of the community. Beyond that, any type of project that lands there would lead to opportunities to create jobs, which could lead to more housing opportunities in Siler City.

When we have additional housing and additional residents, that leads to secondary and tertiary levels of business growth, which can mean more service, jobs and opportunities, more restaurants, all those sorts of things.

There will be additional needed jobs to support the people who work at the CAM site. They’re going to want things to do when they’re not working — they’re going to need assistance. That’s going to be a need for additional schools, potentially; it all depends on what the growth pattern looks like. So that’s a potential opportunity there.

You’re looking at additional revenue for the town. It doesn’t mean in any way a reduction of cost of service, but it does present the opportunity of allowing residents to revisit what types of services they want the town to provide.

One issue you’re dealing with is the moratorium — what’s the latest update on that?

We’re actively working to get out from under it.

Our expectation is that we will have to enter something called a Special Order by Consent or an SOC, and that is basically a contractual agreement between DEQ and the town saying that we will agree to these things, which can exchange for relief from the moratorium. As long as we’re continuing to make progress and compliance with the SOC, we will begin to be granted grace from the moratorium and also get us out from under further penalties and fines. We’re working through that process.

With the town working toward developing an SOC, what does that process look like and how long will it be before the moratorium is lifted?

The one question I can’t answer is when it’s time to get out from under the moratorium — that falls completely in the hands of the state.

I would prefer them to tell us, “These are the problems. We want you to correct these things and we’ll let you have the moratorium.” They’re not that up front — instead of them telling us what to do, they want us to get a plan of what we plan to do.

I feel like that’s a little backwards. They’re the ones telling us we’re under the moratorium, but that’s their process. So that’s why we’re having to go through the business plan, because the business plan is essentially this is what we would do under an SOC should you accept it, and then you’d go through the legal process of drawing that up and negotiations beyond that. So they would have to choose to accept what we’re proposing.

One change you recently suggested was splitting the town’s public works and utilities department into two separate departments — how’s that going?

That’s going really well.

Chris McCorquodale, who was the director of works and utilities, is now the public utilities director. He’s enjoying that role and having the opportunity to focus on water and sewer issues, which has been one of the major challenges that our city has faced in recent years. It gives him that opportunity to focus in that area and give it the attention that it deserves.

Cal Pettiford has worked for us as the Public Works director for over a month now. He comes from Fayetteville, where he was the street superintendent and was responsible for overseeing all their street maintenance and paving projects for the city of Fayetteville. If I’m not mistaken, Fayetteville has the second most amount of lane miles of road of any municipality in the state — only Charlotte has more lane miles of road. So, we’re gaining someone with 20 years of experience in that field. I’m very happy with his skill, expertise and ability that he brings to lead that initiative. I don’t think the transition there could really have gone better than it has.

City hall has been seeing some renovation for some time now. What’s the status of that?

I’ll just say that the project is approximately 90% complete, but the license plate agency and the courtroom are significant areas of the town hall facility left to complete, along with completing HVAC work and the elevator.

The last date they gave us was Aug. 18, so obviously, that didn’t happen. We’ll have another monthly meeting, and they will give us an update.

What else is on your radar and your lists these days in terms of Siler City and its future?

We need help from the public, from the community and anyone who is interested in having a career in law enforcement. That is an ongoing struggle for our city. It’s a problem across the nation, but it’s really hitting us particularly.

Our salaries statewide are competitive, but within driving distance are so many places that are larger than us and certainly economically better off than Siler City. Due to that geographic market, we’re not competitive. We may be competitive when it comes to other towns of our size across the state, but we’re not competitive with Greensboro or Chapel Hill or Durham.

The downside of that is ... there just aren’t enough people going into the law enforcement career for the number of positions that are available.

The George Floyd incident and other incidences of misconduct and brutality by police have damaged the reputation of law enforcement across the entire country, particularly amongst the African American community.

We, as all municipalities, face increasing demand for community policing with a diverse collection of the community serving in law enforcement roles. We are struggling to meet that need. We have several vacancies now, and we have taken proactive steps to try to remedy the problem is just to this point. The problem has been greater than the resources we have to address it.

We have also made the decision to hire individuals as trainees to go through Basic Law Enforcement Training because we recognize that as someone may be interested in the law enforcement career — but they haven’t gone through BLET. Because of that, we could not hire them. When they go through the BLET, they’re snatched up by an agency who can pay more money. But we’re trying to get ahead of that by hiring an individual as a trainee, paying them a salary while they go through that process. So this is giving us an opportunity to step in and help subsidize them while they go through this process.

Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III contributed reporting to this story.

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com and on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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