County leader steps down

Information was hard to come by last week concerning the departure of Cabarrus County Manager John Day.

After eight years as county manager, Day stepped down Friday. He will be paid as a consultant to the county until he retires June 30. He said he decided to leave the post early to allow for a smooth transition for the county government.

Deputy County Manager Mike Downs will serve as interim county manager.

Downs has overseen county operations for the past eight years of his 25-year tenure with the county, according to a prepared statement from White released by the county.

Jay White, chairman of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, said in his statement the county hired Day back as a consultant because it will need his input on such matters as next year's budget - the process is to begin in November - and the countywide property revaluation next year.

Interviewed Thursday, White said Downs oversaw part of the county's operations but not all of them, White said, so Day's input will be invaluable.

Day earned about $200,000 a year, White said, including salary and benefits such as travel and cell phone allowances.

White would not give a specific figure and had ordered county public information officer Aimee Hawkins not to divulge the information, Hawkins said.

White said he wasn't sure he could legally release what Day will earn as a consultant until White checks with the county attorney.

White also said he wasn't sure he could legally release what Downs will earn as interim manager.

He then said the board hasn't decided on Downs' compensation.

Under North Carolina's Public Records Law, the county is required to release all of that information, including age and salary of any public employee and the contract terms of any independent contractor hired by the county government.

Making hard choices

Day had been county manager since 2003.

Of all his accomplishments, Day said, he is proudest of how the county has become a national model.

That recognition came, he said, because of the county's innovative land-use regulations, its employee health care and its building of a sustainable local economy.

Helping guide those efforts has allowed Day to move onto the next chapter of his life, he said.

"Working with Cabarrus County has been a great opportunity, and I'm very proud of the many important achievements made here alongside ... the staff and commissioners," Day said in a statement announcing his resignation and retirement.

Day also helped steer the county government through painful layoffs.

In early 2010, the county announced it had cut 76 jobs and reduced library and park hours to deal with an expected $6.2 million revenue shortfall and a poor economy that precluded any property tax increase.

"Unfortunately, there were no other viable options," Day said at the time. "I really hate that we had to lay off these folks. They're all fine people and have contributed a lot to the county."

Day said the county knew years earlier that a gap between expenses and revenues would appear by fiscal year 2011, which started July 1, 2010.

A major reason was that for the previous seven years, county commissioners had spent the county's savings to balance the budget, rather than using ongoing revenues.

In 2004-05, the commissioners used savings again to cut the tax rate from 56 cents to 53 cents per $100 valuation.

In response, Moody's Investors Service, one of three bond rating agencies, warned the county that its bond rating was at risk because of shrinking savings. A downgraded rating would mean the county would pay higher interest rates on its hundreds of millions in debt, most of which had come from building schools to match explosive enrollment.

For fiscal 2005-06, Day proposed a 10-cent tax increase, from 53 cents to 63 cents per $100 valuation, to start closing the revenue-expense gap.

After long discussions, the commissioners approved the increase to put the county on a stronger financial footing.

For fiscal 2010-11, commissioners proposed a sales tax increase, he said, to offset costs of school construction and other capital projects.

Voters approved the quarter-cent sales tax in May, with 3.5 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the referendum.

But with 1,400 foreclosed homes and an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent at the time, the county couldn't consider a property tax increase, Day said.

In a statement last week, Day said he would miss working with the county's employees, "but I'm confident they will continue to succeed in providing high-quality, innovative services for this community."

Looking ahead

After retiring, he said, he will pursue other initiatives and projects in the region and state.

"Exciting new opportunities are opening for me to work on local, regional and statewide projects aimed at sustainability, self-reliance, health, social justice and prosperity," Day said in his statement.

White, the commissioners' chairman, said Day helped the county evolve into "a financially strong and fundamentally sound institution. I know John will be successful in his next endeavors."

Liz Poole, vice chairwoman of the commissioners, said Day had created a "nurturing organizational culture" that supported teamwork among county workers.

"I appreciate what he's done for the county organization, for the board of commissioners and for the community," Poole said.

Day's tenure as manager was not without controversy.

In 2006, when the county was starting construction of its new sheriff's office and jail in downtown Concord, the Concord Historic District Commission tried to stop the county from demolishing the former Concord Tribune newspaper building at Union Street and Corban Avenue.

At one point, the Historic District Commission sought a court order to delay demolition until it could have the building designated as a local landmark.

That would have saved the building.

Before the group could file its motion with a court, however, Day fast-tracked the demolition using subcontractors to get the process started.

A bulldozer razed the building, and opponents said they saw Day laughing as he watched the building fall.

Of the incident, then-commissioner Coy Privette said Day's "action and attitude does irreparable harm to this county."

Day responded, "I'm responsible for getting the building down. I'm comfortable with what I did."