Voices from Tazewell County: Steve Davis

in appalachia •  8 months ago

Who Still Thinks The County Machine Isn’t Broken?

From where I stand, it seems we have not had diverse, relatable local media coverage in Tazewell County for many years. Relevant voices are going unheard, either ignored, marginalized, or bullied into silence. As a writer and freelance journalist with a growing Blockchain audience, I see an unprecedented opportunity to impact this situation. Recently, I managed a few minutes on the phone with a local personality and former member of the Tazewell County Board of Education. Steve Davis caught my attention at the recent budget hearing and was gracious enough to grant me an interview.

Lifting Voices Above The Noise

Steve Davis is a native of Tazewell County. After graduating from Richlands High School, he went on to complete studies at Virginia Tech and later obtained a Masters in Education from the University of Georgia. At the June 5,, 2018, budget hearing, he encouraged the county and its taxpaying residents to take a closer look at how we ended up with a nearly three-million-dollar shortfall this year. “This is a watershed moment for our county,” he told me later in our phone conversation. He went on to say he doesn’t blame the current Board or Administrator, but that “shortsighted” decisions from prior leadership are what led us to this point.

“I disagree with how we’re positioning ourselves in the county. For one thing, there’s too much focus on tourism,” said Mr. Davis. He went on to explain that we lack an existing infrastructure for that type of economic model. “There’s a difference between tourism and recreation,” he said. “And tourism is being overplayed at the expense of a broader focus.”

Currently, the county is home to dozens of miles of the Spearhead ATV Trail System and to the annual Back of the Dragon motorcycle event. The Crab Orchard Museum and the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine are also located in Tazewell County.

When asked what he thinks contributed to the budget shortfall that resulted in 1.8 million dollars being cut from the Tazewell County School System budget, Mr. Davis had a ready answer. He listed a trio of strategic flaws he has seen in county management: a wrong focus for growth potential, shortsighted decisions made by prior administration, and the lack of ability to attract economic development. “And previous boards just didn’t have any wins,” he added.

I asked his opinion about tax cuts implemented by the Board in recent years that cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. “The idea was to be revenue neutral,” he said. “And both [political] parties were in agreement. There’s a fallacy in that thinking, though, in believing that inflation doesn’t factor. It does.”

“Revenue neutral” is a taxing strategy in which a government can lower taxes for one group, but raise them for another in order to compensate. For example, local sales tax may decrease, but property taxes increase, leaving the total amount of revenue unchanged.

“If Tazewell County were a business and not a government,” I asked. “And you were the CEO, what’s the first thing you’d do to get it back on track?”

“I’d hire a County Administrator and Economic Director at a salary that would pull in the experience we need to bring industry to this area,” he said. “I have nothing against those currently serving. But we need to quit thinking small and get different people in here to make things happen. Revenue from even one industry brought to our area would pay for an increase in salary.

“One thing people should understand is that serving on the Board of Supervisors is not a job. Each of those people up there have other employment. It’s a citizen board that should have power only as a group. Past Boards have been guilty of micromanaging, when what they should really do is let the County Administrator do the work they were hired to do.”

My Two Cents

The things Mr. Davis said make sense to me. I hear much complaining in the non-profit sector about the high salaries paid to executives who run different charity organizations. There’s truth, though, in the old saying that you get what you pay for. Any organization pulling in millions of dollars a year in donations does not need a CEO without the talent to manage it. That talent comes at a price. People who are the best in their field do not work for low-end salaries. I can see a great deal of logic in the argument Mr. Davis makes for offering a compensation package capable of attracting the best economic minds in the country.

For Tazewell County, though, I think at some point it comes down to the hardest question of all: is it really worth it? Are we really committed as a community to not only surviving, but growing at a rate comparable to that of surrounding areas? Do we dare “think big” enough to surpass other communities and a become a true leader in Southwest Virginia? Are we ready to start telling the truth, or are we determined to keep obfuscating it with smoke and mirrors?

Personally, I’ve seen no evidence of this. I see government entities hiring whoever is convenient, citizens not showing up for Board meetings and taking no interest in knowing how their tax dollars are spent, a lackluster media with no consumer demand for accountable reporting, and an embarrassing lack of support for local businesses. We went to sleep at the wheel, Tazewell County, and now it’s hard to tell who’s even driving.

I’d like to continue this series with the goal of amplifying citizen voices in Tazewell County. We have some good people here. I’d love to hear what they have to say.



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