Dedication and Diligence Required to Govern a Small Town
Known locally as a hard-working man who puts in long hours, Seadrift’s Mayor Elmer DeForest will have served four two-year terms as Mayor come May, 2016. He came into office in June, 2008, inheriting the problems of a small community with a crumbling infrastructure and ever-increasing crime – the problems common to small cities with low tax bases and few funds. Mayor DeForest set about to try and turn the tide on these problems.
In 2008-2009, there were 29 burglaries and thefts reported, in addition to many other types of crimes. Many streets were, and some still are, beyond simple repair, along with many drainage issues requiring extensive work. The street budget at the end of fiscal year 2008 was $56,000.00.
Dealing with aging and deteriorating water and sewer systems is a big problem within itself, much less the maintenance needed to keep the water and sewer pumps, motors, electronics and process controls in operation. At the end of fiscal year 2008, the electrical cost for operating the water and sewer systems was $84,000.00.
It would seem that the Mayor’s task was daunting. It took a little while for Mayor DeForest to become more knowledgeable of the problems and issues and the systems the City was using. In 2009, Mayor DeForest appointed Councilman Wesley Hunt to head the Public Safety Department. Wesley had law enforcement experience and the Mayor’s instructions were simple to Wesley, “Fix it.” Over time, with increased police patrols, drug arrests, instructing officers to be trained in investigations and drug interdictions, the following year only one burglary was reported. In addition to solving the one, many previous burglaries were solved.
Mayor DeForest went to work researching grants that could help the City. While working late one evening on the computers at City Hall, a councilman asked the Mayor, “Do you ever take a break?” Mayor DeForest stated, “I shake every bush and tree to see what falls out for our community. Sometimes we hit home runs and sometimes we strike out.”
During his time, Mayor DeForest, working with City Council and other agencies, has increased the pace of replacing water and sewer lines, cleaning and digging drainage ditches, replacing plugged and collapsed culverts and rebuilding some streets within the limited budgets. The street and drainage budget has grown from $56,000 in 2008 to a total of approximately $500,000 spent on streets and drainage through 2015.
Working with grant writers, the City received two separate grants for wind turbines. The first was placed at the waste-water treatment plant, resulting in a reduction in electrical consumption. Later, a different wind turbine was acquired for the water system. The current 2015-2016 fiscal year, the budgeted amount for electrical consumption is $53,000, compared to $84,000 in 2008. The City created a Utility Contingency Fund shortly after the first wind turbine began operation. The electrical savings created from both turbines are deposited in the Utility Contingency Fund each month.
But the work is never done, says the Mayor, with plans to put asphalt caps on the streets that have been rebuilt, continue working on other street and drainage projects, adding water and sewer lines so lots can become developed, thus improving the tax base. The current challenge and the biggest budget item is to continue to improve drainage in certain areas of the City.
The City has only so much money to work with and can’t spend what it doesn’t have. When Mayor DeForest came into office, the City was operating in the red by the time August and September came around during each budget year (ending September 30). Before the fiscal year ended on September 30, 2008, Mayor DeForest implemented a spending freeze and only salaries and the bare minimum of expenses could be paid. It also required the Mayor and the Council persons over the departments to approve and the Council to authorize the Mayor to borrow money from the Contingency Fund the needed amounts to keep the city in operation. The Mayor stipulated that all borrowed funds be paid back, with interest, back into the Contingency Fund.
With tighter controls, the City began operating with a surplus at the end of each fiscal year beginning in 2011, with no need to borrow needed operating funds since then. The City still must be careful, as funding can be precarious and fickle. The Mayor shared that he had contemplated temporarily reducing manpower and cutting back City Hall hours by the end of August, 2008 due to the funding shortfall. Thankfully, he didn’t have to.
To be an effective Mayor in today’s world, one must keep abreast of the latest State Legislature changes and laws, be able to budget and foresee problems that may come up over the course of a fiscal year, and be able to adapt accordingly. Budget workshops and hearings can sometimes be long and tedious, requiring hours of number-crunching, and working with Council members to set priorities of where work needs to be done, versus funding availability.
Mayor DeForest has brought more accountability and transparency to the City of Seadrift under his administration. It was once stated at a workshop meeting that there are now so many line items and it’s a lot to read. The Mayor’s response was, “That’s called transparency and accountability.”
Mayor DeForest appoints Council members over areas of the community in an effort to help solve problems and oversee their areas. Currently there are Council member Rainer Brigham over Public Safety, Geoff Hunt over Streets and Drainage, Peggy Gaines over Parks, Recreation and Historical, Buddy Cross over Harbors and Waterways, and June Cantrell over Public Utilities.
As Seadrift looks to the future, Mayor DeForest wants to have a hand in helping lead the City move into an era of growth that appears to be beginning, whether we want it to or not, meaning the type of growth that normally accompanies communities located on bays, lakes, etc. On the horizon, there are potential opportunities developing in and around the City for the City to take advantage of to enhance its position. At the same time, the City is confronted with the issue of a continuously aging infrastructure that must be dealt with sooner, rather than later. Some infrastructure issues in the water and sewer systems, to remain compliant with State and Federal environmental mandates, will need to be dealt with and will require some tough decisions by the Mayor and Council within the next two years.
With its fine school, churches, and businesses, Seadrift is a great opportunity to invest, retire, or raise a family.