Dan Scanlon's Secrets for Currituck County's Success? Teamwork, Trust and Tax Rates

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Dan Scanlon was a team player.

But during his 18 years as Currituck's County Manager, Dan Scanlon did not have a number and he did not wear a jersey. 

If he did, there's no doubt it would be on display in a local government building, "officially retired" as a sign of respect for Scanlon's 29 years of public service in Currituck County.

Because it when it comes to helping guide Currituck's growth in the opening decades of the 21st century, Dan Scanlon is widely considered the county's MVP.

When he announced his retirement in May of 2018, the initial response from his colleagues was unanimous: he will be missed. 

Scanlon became County Manager in September 2001, after serving for 11 years as Currituck's Finance Director.

Friday, June 28, 2019 marks his last day as a Currituck County government employee. 

Ben Stikeleather, who joined the county in October 2018 as assistant county manager, will take over as County Manager on July 1.

We spoke with Scanlon a few weeks before his retirement to ask him a few questions about where Currituck County came from, where it is today and where it's headed tomorrow.


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What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?

Well, as I told my department heads here, I didn't accomplish anything. It was a collective effort of a lot of people who, working together under good elected officials, leadership and good vision, accomplished everything. I think it's important to recognize that any accomplishment is because of the group, the team, the collective of all of the boards I've worked with and all the staff I've worked with since I was hired.

What do you see as Currituck County's greatest strength?

I think one of the intrinsic strengths of the county is our environment. We've got a beautiful Outer Banks, we've got the beach, we've got the sound, we've got open space. I think our physical attributes are definitely a strength. They give us a lot to work with.

Whenever we go out into the community and ask the citizens, we always hear that the environmental things draw people here. We don't have the city noise. You can see the stars at night. There's open space. We've got water. There's a physical beauty that draws people here.

We've also got employees who are committed to the service that they provide the community. When you combine our physical features, our environment, our governmental services... I think they all help create a quality of life in Currituck that is unique. 

I'm sure the low tax rates don't hurt.

We really champion our low property taxes. People come here because they like low taxes. But then they might ask, "Why don't you pick my trash up at my house? Why do I have to haul it to a convenience center?" Well, we could do that, but that has a cost to it.

There's definitely a trade off. People come down here and soon realize that there are things that you give up. It can create somewhat of a conflict.

There are lots of reasons why we have low taxes here. Some of it is that we still consider ourselves relatively rural. We provide rural-level services because municipal-level services will drive the taxes up. And so, for a lot of people, there's an adjustment.

Is it a challenge managing those two groups: people who come to Currituck to "get away from it all" and people who want more services and amenities?

I think the biggest challenge is balance. It can be a challenge promoting growth and economic development without sacrificing the quality of life that attracted people to come here in the first place. As a growing community, we’re constantly striving for that balance and trying not to not lose touch with our roots.

IMG_9445-1You worked for the county for almost three decades. How different was Currituck County when you started?

It was drastically different. I don't think we had any stop lights in the county and 168/158 was a two-lane road. The Outer Banks was only starting to develop. Half the subdivisions in Corolla weren't here when I started or were at some stage of getting approved. We didn't have named retail and grocery stores. It was all local stores. 

But when people wanted a named grocery store, we got it. Then came the streetlights and the widening of the roads and traffic started increasing. It's all part of that growth and balance you’ve got to maintain.

When I came here, the local government had maybe a hundred employees and the budget was, probably a third of what it is right now. Now, we've got complexes, we've got buildings, our schools have grown, we're just shy of 500 employees. Our budget is probably three times bigger.

So almost everything has grown.

Almost. One of the things that I'm most proud of is that the tax rate here is 8 cents lower today than it was when I walked in the door 28 years ago.

rsz_1moyock-768x538-1Is the pace of growth picking up?

It is right now. We went through a depressed period not too long ago, but it has picked up and we're in another growth spurt. In the last couple of years, the number of projects coming into Moyock, and the amount of construction going on shows that we are definitely in another growth spurt.

What projects do you think have the most potential for changing the county?

That's a tough one. I think that the vision that the county has and the potential of Currituck Station could have a very positive and significant impact on the north end of the mainland.

Can you explain how?

Right now, unfortunately, we are not in a position to come out and release who we're talking to and what we think is going to happen there. And so the public has a certain image or a certain understanding of what they believe is happening in there. But the people we're talking about will bring new services and new things that will enhance and compliment the quality of life here.

Hopefully in the next six to nine months, when we have the first couple of people that can announce, or that will announce and start building, the community will start to see what the vision is and what we're trying to pull together. Currituck Station has the potential to become a pretty significant improvement for the county.

Anything else?

One project that is somewhat controversial but will have a major impact is the Mid-Currituck Bridge. It has the potential to change some of the growth patterns and how things operate in the county. Individually, some think that's good and some think it's bad, but the bridge will definitely have an impact.

And we're continuing to grow our partnership with the College of the Albemarle. They are bringing more services and curriculum into our community, which will have a very positive and profound impact.

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Besides growth and development, what else has changed the way Currituck County does business? 

Technology has certainly changed since I started here 29 years ago. The advance of computers and computer networks, cell phones and social media have had a significant impact on how we do business, how we deliver business, and how we interact with the community. They've all had a significant impact. Some of it positive, some of it not-so-positive.

When I came to work here, every employee did not have a computer on their desk. They had things called "dumb terminals." You just had a terminal that was wired back to a main frame and not everybody had access to that. You didn't have a laptop that you could take home. Computers weren't portable and they weren't everywhere.

Has it changed the county's relationship with the public?

How you interact with the public is definitely different. How you interact and how quickly that interaction occurs has changed. If you think about it now, our Board of Commissioners meetings are broadcast on live television. People can see and get information in real time and can respond and communicate in real time. By the time the meeting's over, you're immediately seeing the reactions to things you did. Good or bad.

What's one big lesson you've learned from your career in public service?

Number one, it's not for everyone. 

This is a generalization, but as a society, we're very quick to criticize, challenge, judge, and demean our government. I'm speaking specifically about local government, but we do it at the state and federal level too. Learning how to manage that as a government employee can be difficult. More often than not, the same folks who are critically judging you one day are the same people who are calling you the next day asking for help.

It takes time to understand and work through that. But that’s all part of being a public servant. That's why it's not for everybody. I don't want to be corny and say it's a calling, but you really need to want to do something for your community. You have to want to be involved and be dedicated to making things better in some fashion.

The other thing that's critically important about public service, but sometimes can be lost, is that it’s a tremendous fiduciary responsibility. As county manager, my position involved making decisions that impacted people's lives. My job was to budget and expend hard-earned tax dollars that we collected and do it appropriately and responsibly. That's a tremendous trust and responsibility that is given to local government. And unfortunately, all too often you read about how that trust is broken.

How does that trust get broken?

I think it gets broken when you become disconnected as a government employee and forget who you work for and what impact your decisions can have. It gets broken when people forget that they aren't just working with money, they're spending the tax dollars of hardworking people. Avoiding that disconnect is a challenge for public servants. We have to earn our community's trust every day. It's important for us to remember that.

I think one of the greatest sins of a manager, is to forget who you work for. I tell the staff, you’ve got to remember, when you want to go buy whatever widget you're buying, that is a hard earned tax dollar you're spending and you've got a responsibility to spend it wisely.

197B0761What's one thing you want to tell people in Currituck County about their government?

Well, in Currituck County, chances are pretty good that the person working that government job is your neighbor.

I have been blessed in my career to have worked with some very hardworking, knowledgeable, dedicated employees who care about their communities. They come to work, intending to do the best they can. Having a team like this and working for them is probably one of one of the greatest joys I've had in my career.

Do you have plans to run for elected office?

No. I've seen the job up close. We can be horrible to our elected officials. Our democracy is based on people willing to put their name out there and run, but my God, we are hateful to them when they run.

I've been fortunate in my career that good people have been willing to sign up and share their vision, even though they know that they're going to be harshly judged. People continue to do it and I applaud that. It's absolutely necessary for democracy.

I don't want to say never, but I do not see myself running for office.

Will you stay in Currituck?

My daughters all live in Currituck and northeastern North Carolina, so I will stay in the area. At least right now, my wife and I have no intentions of moving. I’m going to enjoy my grandson, enjoy my family, do some traveling, just enjoy life.

Do you think it will a difficult adjustment, going from county manager to ordinary citizen?

Everybody is telling me yes. But I've thought about this for a while...

People ask me, "What am I'm most looking forward to in retirement?" And I think it's this: it’s a huge burden coming to work every day and knowing that every decision you make impacts the livelihoods of everybody in your county. I've tried my hardest to make good decisions and make the right decisions, but there’s a lot of stress in doing that.

Sometimes they're not pleasant decisions. They can be difficult decisions. And with that responsibility can come a lot of stress, a lot of angst. So I’m looking forward to being able to put that burden down, have that lifted off my shoulders. Not that I haven't enjoyed it, but it’s going to be nice to not have to sweat, stress, and fret every day decisions like that.

Are you planning to block all phone calls from Ben Stikeleather, the new County Manager?

(laughs) No, actually, I'm not. The previous manager had set things up nicely for me. I hope I've set things up nicely for him. If anybody needs to reach out to me for whatever reason, this is my county, this is my community. I want it to be viable and survive. I want Ben to be successful. So if there's a way I can help, I'm willing to do that. 

Your wife (Tina Scanlon, Currituck County Information Technology Director) is also retiring on July 31st. What are you going to do with a whole month to yourself?

I've got a month to get a head start on my wife's to-do list!

 

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