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Conference offers tips to better counties

by ERIN WILTGEN Thomasville Times
August 2010

The National Association of Counties (NACo) focused on surviving the economic hardships, offering tips to the gathered county government officials from across the nation on ways to turn unemployment and lack of spending around.

Davidson County Commission Vice-Chair Sam Watford attended the conference, which spanned July 16-20 in Washoe County, Nev.

I believe in it, and I enjoy it,” said Watford, who paid all of his expenses except for the registration fee and the hotel. “I think it’s worthwhile. I meet a lot of people from all over the country. There’s no question about whether it’s worth the little bit of money it costs the taxpayers for me to go out there.”

NACo, the only national organization that represents county government nation-wide, provides a unified voice to the country’s 3,068 counties before the federal government. The organization works to educate the public on the role of county government as well as using research and education to help counties find collaborative and innovative solutions to their problems.

“I think they’re very good conferences,” said Commission Chair Dr. Max Walser, who didn’t attend the 2010 event but has attended in the past. “You get some good ideas from them.”

As one of the largest counties in North Carolina — and North Carolina being one of the largest states in the country — Watford said Davidson County’s participation in NACo is crucial.

We have to be a part of this,” Watford said. “We have a full-time group of lobbyists that are looking after the counties’ concerns.

Though this year’s theme centered on the economy, last year focused on ways the federal stimulus package could help county governments. Forum topics can range from energy efficiency to wastewater management.

“It’s a whole array of topics that do come up at this meeting, topics that have leadership kind of issues,” Walser said. “They are topics that you would think all county commissioners and county government have to deal with.”

Watford attended about six individual workshops over the four-day period, including one on foreclosures, waterworks, clean air, green building and workforce development in local libraries.

Also at the conference, Watford said former U.S. Labor Secretary and economist Robert Reich addressed the gathered politicians as the keynote speaker, addressing the economic situation and ways to improve it.

He’s very well-respected,” Watford said. “He was sharp. He itemized specifically what he thinks it’ll take for us to get out of the current economic state we’re in. He had some good ideas on what’s wrong with this country and how to fix it.

One of the important things Watford learned at the conference centered around air quality, since the county has been found in non-compliance with particulate air quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin enforcing a new National Standard for Ground-Level Ozone in August, putting 76 percent of the country’s counties in non-compliance. Watford attended the forum discussing cost-effective strategies available to help counties attain the new levels.

But the main thing Watford took away from the conference — or at least the fact that hit the hardest — was how well Davidson County had fared the economic downfall despite its pressing difficulties.

As bad as things are in Davidson County, we’re in a whole lot better shape than a lot of places in the country,” Watford said. “I did not realize that until going out there. There are some truly economically distressed places in this country. I’m not saying that it’s not bad in Davidson County now, but we are fortunate to be doing as well as we are.”

The next NACo conference will be held July 15-19, 2011, in Multnomah County in Portland, Ore.

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