The Strategic Priorities of a Small NC Town

About the Author

CED Guest Author

Lydian Altman is director of the Strategic Public Leadership Initiative with the School of Government.

An eastern North Carolina town, with a declining population of about 10,000, held its first-ever retreat earlier this year.  I served as the retreat facilitator. The Town has experienced a change in its traditional economic structure, many of the young people feel discouraged about the job market and seek employment elsewhere, median income is well below the state average, and the infrastructure is suffering from continued delays in investment.

Given all the work that needs to be done, how can a town decide where to focus their efforts?  What kinds of issues become most important to spend time working on?  And which issues get put aside?

This Town had avoided a tax increase by penny-pinching and running a lean organization for almost twenty years.  But in the face of changing conditions, now there was nothing left to cut without sacrificing the services residents had come to expect.  The council and the manager knew they could no longer avoid some really tough choices:  something had to be different this year, whether it was user fees, a tax rate adjustment, or both.

This unavoidable scenario loomed over the council as they went into their annual retreat to develop their strategic goals for the coming year.   The facilitator’s role was to help them have effective conversations by exploring each others’ view points, encouraging them to inquire about others’ views, and help the group make some difficult decisions.

During a day and a half of brainstorming, discussion, goal development, and priority-setting, the Council considered over twenty potential goal areas but settled on a handful of items as their top priorities.

  • The group decided it was time to explore ways to raise revenue, including ‘new’ ways for the Town to finance debt.  Traditionally, the Town financed major purchases with a strictly pay-as-you-go approach.
  • Community and economic development also topped the list of priorities as the most important goals for the upcoming year.
  • Finally, several appearance-related goals garnered support for inclusion in the town’s annual plan of work.

These priorities will be incorporated into the work plans of both the council and manager for the next year to eighteen months.  It is helpful for leaders in one jurisdiction to see how other jurisdictions are handling common challenges, so a more detailed list of the Town’s strategic priorities is provided in the table at the end of this post.  

It is recommended that communities review their work annually to see how their performance aligns with their priorities and whether they have allocated resources—both human and monetary—to make progress towards their priorities.  In this way, organizations get the maximum benefit from their strategic planning efforts.

What are your priorities for the year?  Are you tracking your progress?  How are you using your plans to further the goals stated by your community or organization?  Interested in learning more about these topics?

Priorities Actions
Establish fund balance policy for general and enterprise funds Consider during upcoming budget, March-June 2011
Explore charging user fees for recreation programs Consider during upcoming budget, March-June 2011
Replace trees in downtown with ones that do not block storefronts, are easier to decorate, and do not dominate the landscape Staff to consult with arborist about appropriate replacement tree, potential costs Bring proposal to the FY 2012-13 budget process
Conduct pay plan study for employees so that the town can maintain a competitive workforce Staff to explore study consultants in the next few years Consider in FY 2013-14 budget process
Work with Board of Realtors to entice/suggest the benefits of having industrial employees live in Town.  Similarly, share information with hospital, clinic, and school system employees so the Town presents a united front and approach and accentuates the positive. Exploratory conversation (Manager and Chamber ED) first with Board of Realtors, then Industrial HR departments, March 2011 Continue mailing informational packets

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