Editor’s Note: Wake County Commission Chair Paul Coble delivered the annual State of the County address Monday. Here is the text of his speech.
My fellow commissioners, county staff, community partners and my fellow Wake County citizens, I am pleased to be with you today to report on the state of Wake County.
It has been very rewarding to serve as your chair for the last two years. With the hard work of my fellow commissioners and dedicated Wake County employees, along with support of citizens and our business community, we continue to make Wake County one of the best places to live, work and play in the country! We are not the only ones to think so; it seems that numerous national publications and organizations honor us almost every month!
However, these last few years have also been a challenging time for us. Unemployment is still high. Our population is growing and more people are using county services. At the same time, the county has fewer employees than a number of years ago.
But we are improving! And compared to the rest of North Carolina—and most of the country—we are doing well. Our unemployment is going down and our finances are improving. I am cautiously optimistic about our future.
In January of each year, the Board of Commissioners creates goals for the upcoming year. Our number one goal was maintaining the property tax rate at 53.4 cents. I am proud that we were able to keep it at that rate for the fourth straight year. Not only that, we were able to increase funding for our highest priorities: education and public safety. Another one of our goals was to attract and keep jobs. I am delighted that a number of international companies have expanded their presence in Wake County.
Our employees have continued to do a great job of providing excellent services to our residents without having to raise taxes. Another way we are able to keep taxes down is by being able to borrow money at a very low cost. In January, the three major credit agencies once again affirmed that Wake County is AAA-rated, the highest rating possible, giving us the opportunity to borrow money at the lowest-possible rate. Wake County has received this impressive rating from Moody’s since 1973; Standard & Poor’s since 1983; and Fitch since 2000. These bond ratings are clear indications of the sound financial condition of the county. Wake is one of only 38 counties in the entire country—out of more than 3,000—that maintains the highest financial rating from all three major rating agencies. We take pride in this strong financial management and governance.
As I mentioned a moment ago, it seems like we receive accolades almost every month. I know of more than a dozen we have received so far this year.
On separate lists, Forbes ranked the area in the top 5 of places to raise a family and places for business and careers. We have received several accolades for health including healthiest county in North Carolina.
We love showing off the county. In August, more than 300 county commissioners from across the state came to Raleigh as we hosted the annual North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Conference. It was the first time the county hosted it in 22 years. All of the County Commissioners participated in the conference and several led tours of county facilities. Two of our commissioners—Ms. Ward and Mr. Bryan—were past presidents of the association.
The conference was a great success and I received a lot of positive feedback from our colleagues about the event and Wake County in general. Many county employees volunteered their time to make the commissioners and their families feel welcome and I thank them for their efforts. I especially want to thank Susan Banks for her leadership in making the conference so successful.
There have been an exciting number of additions and changes in our county this year.
Public safety is one of our top priorities and I am pleased that we were able to increase our support of criminal justice facilities and public safety in the current budget. In April we attended a ceremony to commemorate the expansion of the Wake County Detention Center on Hammond Road. A number of services are provided in the center by the Sheriff’s Office, CCBI and Magistrate’s Office.
This is a forward-thinking project as it will easily allow us to expand the building in the future as our needs increase and change, thus saving us money down the road. The building came in under budget, was three months ahead of schedule and employed many people in the construction phase.
On a related note, I am really looking forward to the opening of the Justice Center across the street. There will be 18 new courtrooms, with space for four additional ones in the future. There will be 17 elevators and a set of escalators to help residents and employees move around the building efficiently.
A continuing top priority of the commissioners is working with our partners to improve the mental health system. I am happy to say that we have done a lot to accomplish that goal.
On July 1, we partnered with Durham County to launch Alliance Behavioral Healthcare to provide management of mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse services in Wake and Durham Counties. This partnership will continue to evolve when Alliance becomes a managed care organization in January and adds responsibilities for managing care in Johnston and Cumberland counties.
As the result of a partnership between Wake County, UNC Health Care and the State of North Carolina, a study was completed earlier this year defining the current environment of behavioral health services in Wake County. The study identified gaps in crisis and inpatient services and we are pleased that just last month, we approved an agreement outlining crisis and in-patient services that will be provided by UNC Health Care at our WakeBrook campus starting next year.
The county is doing many things to help keep residents and guests safe. Take for instance the North Carolina State Fair. While it is run by the state, it is located in Wake County, and our employees have a lot to do with making the fair successful and safe for those who attend.
Our food safety inspectors made sure all the delicious offerings were safe. There were no known food safety issues with the nearly one million people who attended.
In addition, Wake County Community Health Director Sue Lynn Ledford was a member of a team convened by State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to study how attendees can safely interact with the animals at the fair.
Continuing with health, I was happy to announce with Wake County Emergency Medical Staff the 100 Day Heart Safe Automated External Defibrillators—AED—Campaign. The campaign, which started in May, was a partnership between the county, defibrillator vendors and businesses and groups that received incentives to purchase AEDs. After these devices were purchased and registered, the Raleigh-Wake and Cary 9-1-1 Centers could easily locate the device and assist during an emergency. We had many previously purchased AEDs registered because of the campaign. With sudden cardiac arrest affecting so many people in the county each year, this program has the potential to save lives of residents and visitors for many years to come. It also shows the success of the county partnering with businesses to impact the health of everyone.
Public safety is one of the most important services we can provide our citizens. We need to make sure that those who keep us safe are provided with the best materials to do this. One of our goals is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of fire/rescue and EMS services. Last month we attended the groundbreaking for the new Bay Leaf Fire Station. When it opens next summer, the station will greatly help the brave men and women working out of the station in the northern part of the county as well as the residents they serve.
Sheriff Donnie Harrison runs a great program that checks on seniors living alone. Participants in the Well-Check program receive an automated call every day asking if they are in need of any type of assistance. If the person or emergency contact cannot be reached, then a deputy will check on the person. Last month, we honored volunteer Ricky Layton who coordinates a picnic and breakfast for participants and volunteers in this program. I thank Mr. Matthews as he chairs the Volunteer Recognition Committee that determined Mr. Layton would be a very deserving honoree.
Sheriff Harrison has also run the Law Enforcement Adventure Camp for children interested in a future career in law enforcement and he has done this since 2003. The free, hands-on summer camp is for students who recently completed sixth or seventh grade. The camp is so popular that it now offers two sessions. We salute Sheriff Harrison on not only keeping us safe but helping groom the next generation of law enforcement professionals.
It is not just human safety that we are concerned about. Feral cats—and what should be done with them—is an issue facing many communities. Earlier this year the board unanimously approved changes to the Animal Control Ordinance. TNR—trap, neuter, return—is a tool designed to help manage the feral cats in Wake County. I would like to thank Mr. Portman and Mr. Bryan for spearheading this change.
While safety is very important, some of the things that make Wake County so special are the amenities, such as our eight parks. Blue Jay Point Park, in the northern part of the county, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. More than 2 million people have visited the park since it opened. A new natural play area opened at the park in March.
College basketball season has just started and I know a lot of people are excited. In the Triangle, it seems that our local Big 3 schools are winning championships every year. But this year, we had another local champion emerge. The women’s basketball team of Shaw University won the Division II National Championship. It was a pleasure to have several members of their team come to our board meeting and be recognized. And we do expect a repeat in 2013.
While we have a lot of fun in the area, Wake County is a serious place when it comes to business. Even though it is still high, unemployment is improving. For September 2012—which is the most recent numbers that we have—unemployment for Wake County was at 7.0%. It was 8.4% in September 2011.That is better than all but four counties in the state and is better than most of the country. But 34,000 of our residents are still looking for work. I am cautiously optimistic that this will improve slowly, especially with so many companies in the area adding jobs. Our partnerships with Wake Technical Community College, the Wake Economic Development Program, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and other entities help us attract and keep good jobs.
One example, NetApp, a high-tech company with about 1,500 employees on the Wake County side of RTP announced in July that they will add another 460 jobs which will pay on average more than $100,000. Last month we also heard about some exciting changes that will take place in RTP to keep it an area where employees not only work, but also an area that will provide housing and dining opportunities. RTP leaders believe that schools and cultural exhibits may eventually come to the park as well. We thought that the changes requested for the RTP’s unified development ordinance were so important that we approved them unanimously.
We are very excited that homegrown Red Hat has decided to stay in Wake County. They have started moving their employees downtown, just a block away from here. And they promise to add 540 new positions in the area. Another tech company—Citrix—is moving downtown. They plan to add more than 300 new jobs in Raleigh. Both of these companies are adding high-paying jobs and we hope that the people who are hired not only choose to work in Wake County but make it their home as well. With these successes, we may attract additional startups and other high-tech companies to the area.
I am pleased that earlier this month, Wake County residents voted to approve $200 million dollars in bonds for Wake Tech. Wake Tech is one of the best community colleges in the United States and the number of students who attend is growing each and every year. While these bonds will employ a number of people during the construction phase, more importantly it will help train and educate Wake County residents—whether for their first job or to change careers. As a top community college, Wake Tech helps attract new employers to the region as they know they will find a pool of talented workers.
Related to this is the Human Capital Development and 2012 was the first full year of two Human Capital Development partnerships: the Raleigh College & Community Collaborative and Youth Thrive. Dr. West served as the initial conveyor for the development of a shared agenda across the community for young people. These groups form the basis for a strong cradle to career initiative aimed at building the human side of our economy.
We can see other positive signs in our real estate sector. The number of residential sales is up. From January to September of this year, more than 7,200 qualified residential market sales took place, an 11 percent increase over the same period in 2011.
Building permits for the whole county are up as well–both new residential permits and new commercial and industrial permits. From January through September of 2012, more than 3,600 new residential permits were issued, up 26 percent from the same period in 2011. New commercial and industrial permits were even more impressive, up 185 percent.
In addition, our actual sales tax receipts were up.
Tourism is important to the region and is improving. Hotel occupancy tax collections and prepared food and beverage tax collections are up. The area continues to attract a number of large conventions and athletic tournaments which help fill our hotel rooms and the visitors spend money in our restaurants and stores.
To help our future workers, we need to continue to aggressively fund the educational needs in our community. Education is a priority for our board and for our residents.
More than one-third of the county’s budget is related to education. I am proud that we were able to increase educational funding without increasing the property tax rate. Even in these tough economic times, we have been able to keep the tax rate steady while providing additional funding.
After three straight years of relatively flat funding due to recessionary pressures, Wake County Public School System and Wake Technical Community College received additional support. As I mentioned a few moments ago, the passage of the bonds is so important. In just six years, we expect an additional 50 percent growth in student enrollment. These bonds will allow us to keep up with demand and add several new classroom buildings across the Wake Tech campuses as well as make repairs to existing buildings. I am proud that we are able to offer the bonds without tax increases. If not for the bonds, then these much-needed buildings would not be built for many years. With our AAA-rating and very low interest rates, it makes sense to do it this way.
In addition to our public schools and community college, we have an excellent library system that is very popular with our residents. Libraries circulated nearly 12 million books in both traditional and electronic formats. We had 18,000 visitors come to the annual Wake County Public Library Booksale and Festival of Reading. However, some of the branches are starting to age. As part of the seven-year capital improvement plan, libraries are being renovated. Richard B. Harrison opened at the very end of last year after an eight-month complete interior renovation. Minor renovations took place at Wendell and Green Road. Next year Wake Forest and Fuquay-Varina will receive minor renovations.
We always need to make sure our employees stay up-to-date with the latest information in their fields. Recently, EMS introduced Simbulance, which allows paramedics and emergency medical technicians to practice a number of complicated emergency treatment scenarios on an ambulance with a simulation mannequin system. EMS was able to save money by installing the equipment in an aging ambulance that was scheduled for replacement.
Through actions like these, we have been able to save taxpayers money. We are not cutting corners but finding better ways to allocate money.
Through the leadership of our Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, her department has saved the county tax dollars by using their own software to keep personal information safe and secure on online records. This process has allowed the county to remove more than 50,000 items of personal information from various documents available to the public via the Internet.
GSA, the department responsible for our buildings, motor fleet and other services that make Wake County government run, has recently privatized printing, security and other services. By asking for competitive bids, we are saving money while running government more efficiently.
Other services—such as payroll—have been outsourced to provide benefits for both employees and taxpayers on a cost efficient basis.
I hope each of you has had a chance to look at the new WakeGOV website that launched in October. It is our newer, fresher website but more importantly, it is easier for our residents to use. To build the new site, our Information Services department saved money by keeping everything in house. They did not use outside vendors to create the site and the content was created at the department and division level. More than 100 county employees have been trained to add content to the new site, which is one of the most viewed government sites in the state. In a matter of fact, on Friday, the new site won several awards at the 2012 North Carolina Association of Government Information Officers Seminar.
One aspect of the site that is innovative is the WATCH section, where residents can easily see exactly how their taxes are being used. Instead of looking back at the end of the year to see how much money was spent, they can see in real-time every expense incurred by the county. WATCH has received many awards, including a Digital Government Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government.Wake County also been contacted by a number of other governments who are interested in developing similar software for their jurisdiction. I need to give credit to Mr. Gurley as he was instrumental in the idea of using technology to make our government more transparent.
Each year the county recognizes three employees and one group of employees for the Garland H. Jones Excellence in Public Service Award. The honor is named after our first county manager, who helped lead the way to make Wake County such a special place. These employees do so much to help make the county more efficient and are great ambassadors for the county. Congratulations to Janet Morley, Cynthia Tobler, Thomas Wester and the HIV/STD Community Program Counseling and Testing Team.
We have talked about this past year so far, so let’s talk about the upcoming year and beyond. Yogi Berra famously said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But we know certain things are true.
Wake County is growing and will continue to grow. Additional residents will require additional services. But they also increase revenue by paying property taxes and sales tax on new purchases. We will continue in our efforts to operate an efficient and effective government that focuses on its priorities.
A lot of our success—whether it is with behavioral health or attracting or retaining companies—is a result of partnerships. In the upcoming year, partnerships will be important to the success of county such as:
• Partnering with our judicial system—judges, district attorney, clerk of the court—who will join us as we move into the new Justice Center and make our courts more accessible to the public.
• Working in partnership with our legislative delegation and our new governor-elect Pat McCrory to improve the economy of North Carolina and Wake County
• Completing our plan with UNC Health Care to provide better mental health services
• Working with the School Board on a realistic capital plan to keep up with growth
• And opening the Neuse River Greenway with the City of Raleigh to add to our recreation opportunities
Last year was good and I am optimistic that next year will be even better. The economy is slowly improving. Wake County continues to be a great place to live, work and raise a family. The commissioners and county government employees will continue to find ways to be efficient while serving our residents.
As I close, I would like to thank you again for the honor of serving as your chairman for the second straight year. On behalf of the Board of Commissioners, I would like to thank our county employees for the excellent work they do for our residents and they service they give.
I want to thank David Cooke, our county manager, and Scott Warren, our esteemed county attorney. Also, Susan Banks, our clerk who helps us out in so many ways and puts up with us on a constant basis. We don’t know what we would do without you.
I cannot believe that Thanksgiving is Thursday. Soon enough the holidays will be here and then 2013. This year has been filled with a lot of changes and I think 2013 will bring us new challenges and opportunities to continue our success as a dynamic and successful county.