Good leaders tend to embrace the concept of there is no “I” in team —and in discussing 12 years of accomplishments as city manager of Mount Airy, Barbara Jones talked almost as much about her staff.
“Each member works with passion, compassion and professionalism,” observed Jones, who will retire on Oct. 1 after a city government career spanning 30 years overall.
“We all have a great bond, partnership and friendship,” Jones added of the various department heads and others she has served with during that period.
“It is heartfelt and there comes some sadness with retiring,” the municipal official said of her upcoming departure. “I will miss working with them, but we will all remain friends.”
Jones has been a ground-breaker during her time at City Hall, not only becoming Mount Airy’s first female manager in 2010 but its longest-tenured one.
Her local governmental experience actually goes back farther.
Jones, who is from Carroll County, Virginia, recalled that her first job right out of school was as clerk to the county administrator there. Coupled with this and other roles, the retiring city manager has been involved in public service for more than 40 years.
She was hired as city clerk in Mount Airy in the early 1990s and eventually became assistant city manager before being appointed to her present post in August of 2010.
Focused on finances
Mount Airy has faced numerous challenges during Barbara Jones’ tenure, some economic in nature due to the closings of textile and furniture plants over the past 20 years. This not only adversely affected residents, but put pressure on the city government to provide necessary services amid a declining tax base.
Consequently, the financial health of the municipality has been a major focus for Jones during her managerial career.
“Taxes are lower today than when I took office,” she mentioned as one result of that.
Mount Airy’s fund balance — also known as its surplus, savings and reserves — is another.
“We have created a strong fund balance,” Jones stated. “Fiscal Year 2020-2021 closed (on June 30) with an estimated fund balance of $14 million.”
The city’s financial picture is not rosy just from the point of view of Jones, but backed up through required yearly audits of its books by an independent accounting firm from out of town.
“With our audits, we have received glowing reviews on accountability,” she summarized. “I have received a comment from one auditor that this is the best-managed city in his district, possibly the state.”
Jones has high regard for Mount Airy Finance Director Pam Stone, who has been a fiscal right hand for Jones since assuming that position in 2014, including the arduous task of helping to prepare the annual municipal budget.
And Stone is expected to play an important role after Jones leaves when Parks and Recreation Director Darren Lewis becomes interim city manager to oversee daily operations until a permanent replacement is hired.
Lewis will be working closely with Stone during that time.
In discussing what she considers her most important accomplishments, Jones was quick to also credit those around her:
“Leaving the city in a strong financial position and a great staff.”
Yet this has not been a matter of squirreling away cash just to look good on paper while ignoring capital needs, which involve major expenses related to vehicles, equipment and buildings.
“We have spent over $21 million during my tenure as manager to keep police cars rotated,” Jones detailed, along with obtaining equipment allowing officers to stay safe and up to date. “We have purchased three fire trucks, upgraded our IT (information technology) system and met many other needs.”
In some cases money from the fund balance has been used, but the outgoing manager says grant dollars also have been obtained for endeavors including expanding Mount Airy’s greenway network and utility upgrades. “I have worked to accomplish many projects while not creating debt for our citizens.”
Recognizing that the health of the local business community directly affects city government, Jones says she has tried to enhance that relationship.
“We have partnered with many existing and new businesses, helping them to expand and create additional job opportunities,” she detailed. “I feel I am leaving this city in a great position for growth in the future.”
More than money
Also high on Jones’ list is a change implemented in December 2010 whereby the Mount Airy Fire Department — along with its core function — began being dispatched to a wide variety of medical emergencies through an expanded first responder program.
“The number of lives that have been saved is just tremendous,” Jones said of a total that has reached 14 per year at times.
Not only has Mount Airy been recognized by the N.C. Division of Water Resources in Raleigh numerous times over the past decade for producing quality water, it has been willing to share its surplus supply with neighbors.
These have included Dobson, Pilot Mountain, Flat Rock, the so-called Interstates District and Carroll County.
“Being able to provide quality water for people is awesome,” Jones said.
In addition to the greenway growth, she is proud of other recreational gains including enhancing programs and numerous upgrades to Reeves Community Center.
City sanitation operations, meanwhile, have been addressed through the launching of a curbside recycling program in 2011 and the acquisition of two automated garbage trucks earlier this year as a safety and cost-saving measure.
Again, Jones praises the work of staff members in achieving such results under sometimes-difficult circumstances, including vacancies among their ranks arising during the pandemic era. The city budgets for 172 employees, but is operating with less, Jones said.
“Today we are working more efficiently to provide a high quality of service to our citizens and working with fewer employees.”
In addition to municipal staff members, Jones has benefited from an association with elected officials over the years, such as late former mayors Maynard Beamer, Jack Loftis and David Rowe.
“I have had great mentors to work with,” she said in reflecting on her experiences in city government, which Jones is leaving partly to spend more time with family including husband Weldon, two children and four grandchildren.
“It has been a great 30 years — we have accomplished many things.”
And during that span, Barbara Jones relied on a simple philosophy, one which has spelled success among those she served with as manager — and citizens:
“This job is about people,” she said.
“Life is about people and how you make them feel.”
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