SE ELGL leader Rafael Baptista returns to discuss his experiential leading experience in Catawba County (NC). Will Tom Lundy (County Manager and ELGL member) be able to convince Rafael that the local level is the right fit for him? We’ll find out in these on-the-ground reports from Rafael. Questions for Rafael? Send them to [email protected]
Three Early Takeaways from Catawba County
by Rafael Baptista, June 11, 2014
When I started the University of North Carolina MPA program in August 2013, I knew that I had a passion for public service and that I was attracted government work. But I wasn’t sure what level of government would be the best fit for my interests. In previous articles, I’ve discussed that during my first year in the UNC MPA program I’ve been exposed increasingly to city and county government issues and this has lead to an increased interest in local government. To further determine whether what I’ve learned in the classroom about local government matches the experience in working on the local level, I accepted an internship Catawba County Manager’s Office.
Tom Lundy, Catawba County manager and UNC MPA graduate, is recognized as a forerunner in innovation on the county level. You might be familar with him from the recent 50 Nifty profile: NC: Tom Lundy, Catawba County, County Manager.
Tom started in Catawba County in 1972 and was named County Manager in 1979. Tom is past president of the International City and County Management Association (ICMA), the National Association of County Administrators, and the North Carolina City and County Management Association. Tom joined the UNC MPA program as an adjunct instructor in 2009.
My work experience in Catawba County began after Memorial Day. My supervisor is Mary Furtado, Catawba County assistant county manager. Mary began working with Catawba County in December 2011, after serving as Executive Director of Strategic Operations in Sarasota County, Florida. She works day-to-day with the Budget, Cooperative Extesion, Finance, Planning Parks and Development, Tax and Technology departments.
I would describe the beginning of my experience as crazy, exhilarating, and extremely educational. I am appreciative that the County has given me tremendous opportunities to grow professionally and learn all areas of county government. While I am only a few weeks into my work experience, I have learned three key lessons about local government management.
Partnerships are Key to Success
One of my first experiences was attending a Board of Commissioners Public Budget Hearing, during which I learned about a unique partnership between the three school districts in Catawba County (Catawba County Schools, Newton-Conover City Schools, and Hickory Public Schools).
Each school district is large enough to provide certain special services to students but small enough where individually providing those services would be inefficient. Realizing this, the districts have identified three programs where they work together to provide. Each district is responsible for operating one program for all three districts. This approach allows the districts to provide high-quality services in a cost-efficient manner improving educational outcomes in the County. This collaborative approach has enabled an economically distressed community like Catawba County to enjoy quality public schools at a relatively low tax rate.
Learn By “Doing”
My supervisor has encouraged me to experience all areas of Catawba County government. Following her advice, I have shadowed front-line employees throughout the County. I recently spent six hours at the County’s 911 Communications Center. I learned an incredible amount about 911 communications that night but the main takeaway was unrelated to 911.
What I learned was the importance of management spending time in the field. The 911 operators repeatedly mentioned the positive message sent when the County management team spends time in the communications center. For the operators who are proud of their work, it provides an opportunity to share their work with the decision makers while at the same time showing that the County values their work and input.
One of the things that attracted me to Catawba County is its history of innovation. Over the last 12 years, the County has received more than 200 awards for their pioneering approaches to providing services. In the 1990’s, the County was one of the first governments to create a website, ever since, the County has fostered a culture of innovation in the use of technology. In 2013, the Center for Digital Government ranked Catawba as a leader in the effective and efficient use of digital technologies.
One of the keys to their award-winning streak is that they are willing to think outside the box. Though the Re-Inventing Departments budget process, the County provides departments flexibility to achieve goals and reward them for achieving those goals.
Here are a three other award winning programs in Catawba County:
2014 ICMA Community Sustainability Program Excellence Award: Presented to the Immigrant Agriculture Program, a cooperative effort of Catawba County Government, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension-Catawba Center and the Cooperative Extension Program at North Carolina A&T State University, which works primarily with Hmong farmers living in Catawba County to help them become more successful in growing and marketing their produce.
Performance Dashboard: Awarded to the Catawba County Facts and Figures page, which may be accessed at that offers users a choice of exploring data grouped into eight broad categories. Clicking on the button for each category allows the user to drill down into many other data sets within that content area.
QR Codes on Building Permits: Catawba County was recognized for implementation of a Building Permit QR Codes system, which provides building contractors and inspectors with up-to-the-minute job site and inspection information, at their fingertips, in the field.