Community gets a glimpse of Canton town manager finalists
CANTON — About 40 Canton residents got their first glimpse of the three finalists selected by the town aldermen to fill the town manager post.
The trio included Jason Burrell, who is serving as interim manager, Seth Hendler-Voss, the park planning and development manager for the city of Asheville and Vincent Wong, the senior budget and business systems analyst for the city of Gastonia.
All three have a master’s degree in public affairs or public administration, and all have worked in some capacity in municipal government.
The Saturday interviews and forum could signal the end to a 14-month search to replace Al Matthews, who retired at the end of December.
Residents were allowed to write down questions when they entered, and forum moderator Richard Hurley chose a total of six questions randomly from a basket to ask the finalists, meaning each got to answer two questions. For the final round, candidates could respond to any question posed earlier in the forum.
Two of the applicants spoke about their first impressions of the town budget, raising concerns about what they saw, including a heavy subsidy for the parks and recreation program and large withdrawals from the town’s fund balance to maintain current operations.
Several town board members, all of whom were elected just three months ago and haven’t been through a budget cycle, said they were unaware of any budget problems facing the town.
Mayor Mike Ray dismissed the concerns.
“We look at the budget and the fund balance every year and it’s a balancing act,” he said. “We’re staying where we need to be to offer services to our community.”
Town Finance Officer Jackie Edwards said while it may seem the town withdraws large sums from the fund balance, in the most recent fiscal year, there was actually a net addition to fund balance.
A fund balance is important in local governments because a large part of the income is from property taxes, which typically come in once a year. The fund balance allows the town to pay the bills during a time when income is sporadic.
Edwards said the town appropriated $594,070 for the 2012-2013 budget year and of that appropriated amount, only $66,685 was used. For the 2011-12 budget year the appropriated fund balance was returned and $20,237 was added to it.
“Our current fund balance is 51 percent for the general fund and recreation fund combined,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We appropriated $589,577 of fund balance for the current budget year, but hopefully we will only have to use very little of, if any.”
Here’s a recap of the applicants’ comments during the forum.
Burrell served as town manager in Warsaw for four years before moving to Canton four and a half years ago to accept the assistant town manager post.
Burrell stressed his hands-on experience and called the chance to be hired as the town manager an opportunity to create a new path for himself and help the town move forward.
This is not the management of prior years,” he stressed. “It’s a new system of management, a new pro-active management. Canton has a real potential. Everyone talks about that.”
Burrell, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Carolina University, said he will move to Canton if hired as manager, become more engaged in the community and will strive to keep the forward progress that has already started with the recent businesses that have moved to town.
He stressed past successes in landing grants for the communities where he worked — a $500,000 wellness center in Warsaw, $1.2 million in grants for the Champion Drive wastewater project and funding for the NCSTEP program to forge an economic development plan.
Successful grant writing is as much about the relationships that have been built as it is the quality of the application, he said.
He praised town employees and residents.
“This is Shangri-La in terms of communities in terms of picnics, events, support for athletic teams,” he said. “We’ve got a killer community where, if someone is sick, the whole crowd offers support.”
He said being town manager would be his dream job, one he defined as somewhere where it is not work to go to work.
If selected, he said business recruitment and marketing would be his biggest priority.
Hendler-Voss, a New Jersey native with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Penn State, said he moved south in 2001 to launch his career in local government.
After working for the city of Atlanta for two years, he accepted a job with the city of Asheville in 2011 where he supervises 45 full-time and seasonal employees, manages various budgets totaling $3.5 million, oversees design, bidding and construction of park-related capital improvement projects, works with consultants, prepares professional service and construction contracts and prepares reports for the city council.
Voss stressed his people skills, which he said have been essential to past successes in working with communities to envision projects.
“A new manager will embody the trust, confidence and vision of the board,” he said.
“As a park designer, I’ve realized the impact that can have on lives of other people. Not many careers allow you to have that kind of influence. I’ve found design skills translate well to operation management.”
Hendler-Voss said he was a visionary person who was always looking for big picture ideas.
From his discussions with the Canton governing board, Hendler-Voss said he understands the group wants a new direction and to think outside the box.
“You don’t have to change things drastically, but you need to create a vision. One of my greatest strengths is that I’m an active listener who has passion for people on staff and in the public,” he said.
One of his first tasks, if selected as town manager, would be to address town budget issues, build relationships with the town employees and the community and then get to work in creating a vision that everyone can buy into.
Hendler-Voss said the town needs a fresh perspective to tighten up operations and look at fiscal responsibility.
“The budget has some structural issues, but once stabilized, it is time to get visioning and start talking about what Canton needs to be. You are a living history, and it is fantastic the mill is active. Towns all over have lost their industry. We need to focus on our beautiful downtown. We need to be rooted in the past but reaching for the future.”
In the meet and greet time following the forum, Hendler-Voss spoke of budgets where providing town services were made possible over the past two years by drawing funds out of the fund balance, which he considered low for a town the size of Canton.
He also expressed concern about the $400,000 or so subsidy the town provides for parks and recreation.
“If you’re looking to go along with your elected officials, think bold and take risks, then I’m the candidate to help you achieve your goals,” he said. “What separates an average community from an excellent community is the drive of people. If you allow your elected officials to take you in a new direction, I’m willing to come in and take you in there.”
He said the town would benefit from diversifying its economy, recognizing its downtown area is waiting to blossom and developing a plan to be prepared for tumultuous economies to come. He suggested tourism and recreation is where the economy is headed.
“If you all embrace that, I can help you get there,” he said.
Wong, 30, stressed his experience in creating and preparing budgets, financial plans and assisting all city departments in Gastonia with financial inquiries. He also did efficiency analysis for department heads and oversaw customer service when he was a transportation planner.
He is a graduate from Brevard College and has received his master’s degree in public administration from West Virginia University. His first experience with the town of Canton was in helping with flood recovery efforts in 2004.
“I was overwhelmed with the sense of community,” he said.
Since then, he’s returned to take in the ‘Mater Fest and Labor Day celebrations. He quoted President Abraham Lincoln, who once said public sentiment is everything.
“I believe in this and see the citizens of Canton do too,” he said. “I want to do my part to make Canton a better place to work and live.”
During the question-answer sessions, Wong’s answers seldom filled the time allotted. In response to a question of the role of a town manager in business development, Wong said building connections in the region and area to show what Canton has to offer would be key.
“At the same time, it is important to not neglect the businesses that are here,” he said. “Second, we need to make sure businesses are able to be sustained for the long-term.”
Wong said his most significant achievement in his previous position was working on grants for greenway trails.
“It’s gratifying when you start something and can see it on paper, find resources, build it and see people using it,” he said.
Wong said he sees Canton at a crossroads in that important decisions need to be made.
“I promise to roll up my sleeves and work as hard as I can,” he said. “There are times to delegate. I will manage by being shoulder to shoulder to people.”
Following the forum, Wong said he had studied the town’s budget and had several concerns — a dependence on government funds, the use of fund balance to sustain day-to-day operations and the amount of money going into recreation.
Wong said economic development could help with both.
“It is a tough decision on maintaining operations and at the same time spending money on economic development,” he said.
Wong said while his resume doesn’t show a lot of management experience, everywhere he’s been, he held leadership roles, including in his current position, at Brevard College and at West Virginia University.
In addition, when he handled customer service for the Gastonia transportation system, he said he directly supervised 10 people, and indirectly oversaw 30.
Wong said he presented the town board with a 30-, 60- and 90-day plan of how he would approach the manager’s position if chosen.