Metro Lynchburg Moore County Mayor Bonnie Lewis took some time to answer some questions from The Moore County News and reflect on her first year as mayor.
Q. Sept. 1 marked your first year in office and it seems like a lot has happened in these first 12 months. A lot of issues have come up, and you also seem to not be one who puts things off or kicks the can down the road, so to speak. You’ve been very proactive.
A. A lot HAS happened! Someone said very early on that it will take a year to fully adjust to all of the responsibilities. Our citizens call the office daily to tell of things that need fixing and improving in Moore County and I agree with them. Some things can be a quick fix and I am happy to help make those happen but some projects have more requirements to meet and I work every day on those as well. I see our plate as full and there is work to be done.
A. One of the most rewarding was our work during the floods. In the very first week of office, EMA Director Jason Deal called a meeting of all emergency services, law enforcement, all utilities, Hwy department and county officials. It was the first time we all gathered together at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the purpose was to learn our roles in case of a major weather event or emergency that would require our joint actions. We never dreamed we would put that training into action months later during the flood. It was wonderful to watch all of Moore County’s decision-makers work together to provide seamless help for our citizens. We are still working through the paperwork with FEMA from the floods and are currently planning the repairs to damaged areas.
One of the hardest things was having to step in and help salvage the water department. We were in trouble with the state and the process to turn that around has been a tough one. Our new utility board committed many extra hours in hiring new management and staff and all are making sure we now meet all state requirements. The crews and office staff are all very dedicated workers and we are in a much better place now.
Q. What’s the most important thing you think you and the council have accomplished?
A. That has to be getting the high school renovation project started. The loan had been approved for almost a year when I took office. The project was supposed to have been 33% complete by December 2018 according to the terms of the contract and that wasn’t going to happen. I negotiated an extension with the loan company and made a book for each council member to understand the four-year history of the project. Our council acted quickly at the next meeting to approve a contractor and get to work. We are on track today. Our government is patterned after our federal and state governments. Our council is our legislative body and they provide a very important service for little pay. They are true servants to our community.
Q. Is there something else you’re proudest of?
A. I think opening the lines of communication. Beginning in October last year (on 10-10 at 10 a.m.) I began our Department Head meetings. We have a one-hour, monthly meeting, where all local government officials, public works and utilities sit face to face to share what each department is working on. We always learn from each other and usually departments offer help and resources that was not originally planned. I also love the fact we have a renewed sense of working together for the betterment of the county with Jack Daniel Distillery and our chamber of commerce. We are sharing ideas and pooling resources to complete projects and make needed improvements.
Q. Nobody likes to raise taxes. The council voted to do so instead of tapping into resources in order to make a realistic budget. What’s your feeling about this?
A. The budget process was by far the most difficult. We had new leadership and a new member on the budget committee, a new mayor and for the first time in years — no assistance from the state through CTAS because our representative had just accepted a new job and our new rep was not yet assigned. There were some tough decisions to be made. Our fund balance had been tapped for three consecutive years prior to help balance the budget and we knew we were looking at the first big principal payment on the school loan and there were other improvements that needed to be made in the county. We didn’t have a choice.
Q. How is the reorganization of the public safety department working out?
A. I am proud of the way things are working. We are able to have more response teams and they have been needed on several occasions. They also can schedule who is on call so others can have a day off. The shared training and resources is beneficial to all. I’m also thrilled we’ve been able to hire some of our locals to fill the open positions. All too often a small community loses their best and brightest to bigger cities after they receive training or education. It makes me happy to get to retain our local talent.
Q. The 2020 census is coming up. Explain how it’s vitally important to get accurate census numbers for Metro Lynchburg Moore County.
A. This is so very important! Everyone scenario of our county getting our fair share of any monies due to us from the region, state or federal level depends on us having an accurate count of our population. It doesn’t matter if they are doling out allotments, grants or taxes, every penny that comes to the county is dependent on that count. We need to be diligent in making sure everyone is counted.
Q. It’s a challenge to protect the historical nature of the Square and other buildings, houses and so forth and yet be a progressive city that adds new businesses. How do you view this?
A. This is a true balancing act. Lynchburg is unique with its town square and hometown feel. Part of our population wants us to remain just as we are and not change a single thing. Others are begging for a few more modern conveniences locally so they don’t have to drive out of town every day for the most basic needs. We have been making great strides recently on the historical side. Historical preservation representatives from the region and state have been visiting and attending meetings to educate us all. We are also working with some development district folks to scope the possibility of a small industrial area.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in this next year as mayor?
A. We have a lot of projects going on that will be happening this next year. Improvements in the county building and the health services building. Restoring the tennis courts in Wiseman Park and other improvements in the new park. Completing a kitchen for all to use in the legion building and continued pool upgrades. Other big, time-consuming and very important projects we are working on is to bring all county reference, rule and law books up to date. Most are 15+ years old and need newer laws inserted to distribute to all decision makers. We are working on several at the same time including: employee handbooks, zoning ordinance books, historical guidelines and a book of all ordinances passed by our council.
Q. What is the one message you’d like to deliver to the citizens of Metro Lynchburg Moore County?
A. We are blessed. I attended a meeting in Nashville a few months ago. In one of our trainings we sat at big round tables with community leaders that were like-sized. I sat at a table of counties and cities with less than 8,000 population. I was very humbled and actually felt rich in comparison. Those mayors talked of their town squares with only 35-40% occupancy with no hopes of drawing new businesses or residents.
We are small yet we have what others refer to as good problems to have. It’s like the saying, “If you’re lucky enough to be at the beach — you’re lucky enough.” That’s us in a nutshell.
I want to help our citizens beginning with listening to them when they have complaints or concerns. I also want us all to remember to look for and realize all of the positive things we have and build on those. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve.