Published 1:18 am Sunday, September 25, 2011
Josh Kay, Washington’s new city manager, knows for whom he works — the city’s residents.
“I serve at the pleasure of the mayor and council. … Above the mayor and council are the people,” Kay said. “My role is to implement good policy, good fiscal decisions that continue to serve the people. It goes back to that public service.”
Kay said he considers himself very much a steward of the public’s resources, including finances.
“Every dollar we spend, we need to think of it like it’s coming out of our back pocket because, really, it is,” said Kay, who’s from upstate South Carolina. “Every dollar that the City of Washington spends is coming from our customers, our citizens. We need to be as mindful of that as we are of our own paychecks.”
Coming to Washington
“Washington attracted me just because of its small-town character, its riverfront, just a great quality of life,” related Kay, whose wife, Lauren, is from Carolina Beach. “We’ve been married about 10 years. The majority of that time she’s been saying, ‘Get me back to eastern North Carolina.’ … It was a good career change, a good opportunity. Again, it’s a great community.”
Kay believes he can help make it a better city.
“What I think I bring to the table is that I bring some experience in managing a local government similar in size to Washington, with all the utilities — electric, water and sewer,” Kay said. “I think I also bring a little experience in visioning and prioritizing and planning for the future for a community. That’s something that I am passionate about. The only successful plan that you are going to have is on that is community driven and having the council be a part of that and being a major driving force in that.”
Kay believes his management experiences in Clinton, S.C., will serve him well in Washington.
“We (Clinton, S.C., leaders) went through a five-year community-driven strategic planning process. Each five years … the community came together. They had a steering committee appointed by the mayor and council. That steering committee came up with four of five different areas that the community needed to focus on, one of those primarily being economic development in Clinton,” Kay said. “They lost close to 4,000 jobs in about a seven- or eight-year period inside the city limits alone. So, creating jobs and creating a tax base was paramount to Clinton’s viability. … One of the successes was creating an industrial park. Once that plan was put forth, the council turned around and instructed staff to make that happen.”
Clinton used public money and private capital to create the industrial park.
“We began to locate industries and businesses in that park,” Kay said. “Clinton did not get back to the 4,000-jobs level, but they’ve certainly got a product there that is attracting private investment. … That’s a success for them that will carry them toward the future.”
Kay is convinced that Washington, with all its assets, can move toward a better future.
“The great thing about a community visioning process … is that you can take the community’s input and take what they desire and turn that into reality,” Kay said. “I think for any plan to be successful, you’ve got to have buy-in. You’ve also got to have implementation as well. You’ve got two pieces there. Taking the second piece first, you certainly don’t want to have plan that just sits on the shelf. That doesn’t do anything but make the entire process worthless. You’ve got to have input. You’ve got to have input from all segments of the community.”
As he worked as an intern for Clinton, S.C., Kay said, he began to realize something about government.
“I really started to see that local government had more ability to make impact on people’s lives than Washington (D.C.) or the state,” Kay said.
Kay believes that he and new Beaufort County Manager Randell K. Woodruff have key roles in improving cooperation between the city and county.
“Beaufort County and the City of Washington need to be as close as possible,” Kay said. “My philosophy is that a rising tide floats all ships. We will work together very closely. Mr. Woodruff and I have already met a couple of times and plan on meeting numerous times, and, hopefully, make it a regular occurrence where the managers can get together and talk about opportunities that we can create some economies of scale, but also create some conversations about services they offer and we offer that not necessarily can be combined or merged but can work with each other. The driving force behind that, more than anything else, is we need to do whatever is best for our citizens, for our customers. If there are cheaper ways we can do it, then we certainly need to be open to that, and we are going to be open to that.”
Kay said the city should work with other local governments and agencies — local, state or federal — to improve existing relationships.
“We need to be looking at every single avenue where we can provide the highest level of services to our customers at the lowest possible dollar amount,” he said.
“The City of Washington, in our budgeting process from here on out, we’re going to be as conservative as we possibly can. That goes back to prioritizing our services, prioritizing the projects that are out there. That goes back to the mayor and City Council. That goes back to my elected bosses to help me plan those priorities. … I feel certain that staff is going to recommend, well, staff is going to have to operate with less dollars than are currently available,” Kay said. “That’s the new normal, as it’s being called. It’s operating with less. That will be a challenge. We will certainly have to work with our citizens and work with our elected body to try to figure out what we’re offering, how we’re offering it and making sure that we can continue to offer high level of services, but we’ll need to be able to do that with less operating resources.”
Kay hadn’t been on the job in Washington a month when Hurricane Irene struck, but that experience revealed some things about the city’s staff and resources to him.
“Beyond what the city offers, it should me more than anything else that you’ve got a great community,” he said. “When I came through, driving through some of the neighborhoods, you had neighbors walking across the street to help neighbors with chainsaws and clearing trees off houses and off city roads and state roads. I think that’s a huge feather in the cap for our community.”
In the hurricane’s aftermath, Kay noticed something else.
“As far as city resources go, you know, it shows that we’ve got very, very capable and competent employees. That’s one of our greatest assets is the people,” Kay said.
Asked to name the most significant, positive “surprise” he’s encountered since taking over his new post, Kay came up with two.
“Probably two biggest surprises. No. 1 is quality of staff. We’ve got some really great people on the Washington team. … Secondly, it kind of goes back to those opportunities. There are tremendous amounts of opportunities for the City of Washington. … If we can set a vision, Washington has unlimited potential.”
Challenges are present, too, he noted.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is, again, already trying to plan for — how do we continue to operate the level of services that we’re operating with a reduced amount of revenue, with reduced operating expenditures?” Kay said. “That’s our challenge. It’s not a challenge just for the City of Washington; that’s a challenge for all agencies. So, that’s our biggest challenge, right now.”
Job: City manager of Washington.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, Presbyterian College; master’s degree in public administration, University of South Carolina. He’s enrolled in the municipal-administration course at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Experience: Former Clinton, S.C., city manager, a position he held from November 2007 until accepting the post in Washington. Before becoming city manager of Clinton, he served as assistant city manager from July 2005 until named manager in 2007.
Military background. He served for two years (active duty) in the Air Force, earning an associate’s degree in electronics. He worked on C-17 aircraft at Biloxi, Miss. He also served six years in the reserves.
Interests, hobbies: “Probably my biggest interest is my family.” Kay also likes to golf.
Family: Wife, Lauren; two daughters, Gracen, 9, Caroline, 4.
One of his favorite movies: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It influenced him in choosing his career path.