The Lady Down the Hall

How an ugly process produced a solid choice for county manager
Mecklenburg County

Let’s stipulate that the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners didn’t exactly distinguish itself in its search for a successor to Harry Jones as county manager.

Let’s stipulate, too, as my colleague Lisa Rab observes, that it’s a head-smacker to think that the board spent seven months conducting a nationwide search and ended up picking the lady down the hall.

As disjointed and fumbling as the process has been, it produced a pretty solid result — and not just because Dena Diorio is Mecklenburg County’s first female county manager.

I’ve spoken with Diorio only a few times but always found her direct, no-nonsense and matter-of-fact, oriented far more toward the spreadsheet than the press release. (Brief but revealing Observer video below.)

She was finance director, of course. But she also seems to understand the crucial difference between managing private and public money; this is someone who moved to North Carolina from New York specifically because she wanted to be a county manager, a position more common down South.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment, one that saved county taxpayers untold amounts of cash: Starting in early 2009, she oversaw a “debt diet” that reduced borrowing and established new management strategies, such as a new fund dedicated strictly to servicing existing debt.

The moves were designed to maintain the county’s AAA bond rating, which allows it to borrow money at the lowest interest rates for construction and other large-scale projects. They worked, too. Even during the recession, the county controlled its debt load and held on to enough cash reserves to retain its bond rating.

You can look at this a couple of ways. One is that Diorio employed the kind of belt-tightening that reflects a business approach to government. Another is that this is simply good government under a career public servant who knows what she’s doing.

We hear a lot these days about government, like individuals and families, having to “live within its means.” If that means government can spend only what it has on hand, I’m sorry, that’s silly. (And let’s be honest — very few individuals or families live within their means, either. If you’re paying off a mortgage, car note or student loans, or if you owe money on credit cards, you’re fiscally irresponsible, too. So zip it.)

Governments have to assume a certain amount of debt. Otherwise, roads go unpaved, schools go unbuilt, sewer systems go unexpanded. The long-term cost of no borrowing at all far outweighs the short-term cost of debt — as long as that debt is manageable and managed. Diorio has demonstrated the ability to manage it, and well.

And there’s one more reason she was a savvy choice. With budget season starting just after New Year’s, Mecklenburg County citizens had reason to worry that the new manager would be starting the budget process before he or she learned everyone’s names. Picking Diorio neatly sidesteps that problem.

Who knows? She may end up going down the same road as her predecessor. Maybe the county is just a beast that can’t be tamed. (That surely describes the Board of Commissioners.) But I’m willing to bet that the new county manager, installed at last, will do things the right way.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest