Progress, problems and future plans: Darlington City Manager discusses first year in office
By Stephan Drew, Editor
On August 16, 2021, Darlingtonian John Payne celebrated his first year as the City Manager for the Pearl of the Pee Dee. After a thorough application and interview process, he was chosen by council to fill the vacancy created when former City Manager Howard Garland’s contract was not renewed. When we spoke with him, he was candid and open about the problems he has encountered, progress that is being made, and the city’s plans for the future.
It has been a very eventful year but, he took the time to discuss his experiences and what has been done over the last 12 months:
What are the official duties of the City Manager?
The City Manager is, officially, the Chief Executive Officer for the municipality. The Council is the legislative body. We are a ‘Council/Manager’ form of government. It’s also called a ‘Weak Mayor’ form of government, where the authority for setting budgets and policies, ordinances and such, rests with the Mayor and the council. Any executive actions – hiring and firing of employees, budget expenditures, signing contracts, any kind of functions like that – come under the authority of the City Manager.
Is there anything that makes your experience as City Manager different from those previously in this position?
I did not come to this position in what I call a ‘traditional’ City Manager career path. A lot of people start in lower levels of government and work their way up. I didn’t do that. I started out, I was working in government. I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. I worked with a Senior United States Senator (Strom Thurmond) for eight and a half years. At that point, I moved to Beaufort and I ran two apartments for the fastest-growing county in the State of South Carolina at that time. I decided I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life so, I decided to go back to school.
I then went and got an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) from the Citadel. Then, I got an Accounting degree. I was working for a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) firm. I thought that I wanted to be a CPA and then, I figured out that I didn’t want to do taxes for the rest of my life. But, it gave me a foundation that I could move on. From there, I became the Finance Manager over the local hospital’s Employed Physician Group, where I was in charge of the financial portions of each physician’s contract, to make sure they were paid correctly and make sure each clinic’s financial metrics were made.
I did that for a while and then, I left. I became Comptroller for a company that just started out. In 18 months, we opened four businesses. We started out in polyester fiber distribution. We opened a warehouse and then we opened two retail stores in south Florida. I did that for a few years. So, I’ve opened business and I’ve run businesses. After that, I became a financial advisor and I worked with Edward Jones for 3 or 4 years. In that position, I was in charge of protecting and growing people’s wealth. I could have stayed in that position. My business was growing and I was happy. But, the opportunity came up here. This is my home town. I wanted to move back close to home and I felt I could make a contribution. Like I said, I didn’t come here in the traditional direct route, working my way up the chain. But, I’ve got significant government experience and significant financial experience, which you have to have to sit in this seat.
What would you consider your major accomplishments in the last year?
We have instituted new personnel policies on sexual harassment, COVID, random alcohol and drug testing, and the creation of an employee grievance committee. We’ve always had audits but now they are random and we have put in place an enforcement mechanism for those who break the rules. We now have a monthly Hospitality Tax form with verification requirements (ST-3 forms). We started a business license income requirement system using tax returns or income statements for verification.
Our Local Government Investment Pool (LGIP) is approximately $3.9 million. We initially used bank deposits that earned the city very little, about $4,200 last year. Since it has been invested in the LGIP, we earned over $7,000 in one month. That is approximately $85,000 a year, over 20 times what it was making before we changed it. By adding that amount and also saving over $54,000 in other areas, we were able to add an extra $139,000 to the City’s revenue, which more than pays for my salary.
We completely rewired City Hall and installed a new telephone system. We also created the Grants Committee. Since I’ve been in office, many new businesses have located here or enlarged their existing facilities, including Southern Charm Restaurant, Mavis Tire, Mod Wash, a convenience store and Georgia-Pacific’s new expansion. In addition, there’s the enlargement of Genesis Healthcare, the new Judicial Administration Building, Darlington County Historical Commission and Museum’s new expansion, 47 new apartments, and three new stores on the Public Square. There is also a new physical therapy business coming to the old KFC in October. In the Water Department alone, we are planning to extensively repair the infrastructure. Over the last year, they have processed 9,208 work orders, performed 5,662 sewer pump station daily checks, repaired or replaced 266 different items at the City’s 14 pump stations, completed 188 sewer service line cleanouts, and repaired 345 water line leaks. We’ve all been very busy.
What is the most common difficulty you encounter while doing your job?
Darlington’s infrastructure is old and antiquated. A lot of the infrastructure under our streets is over 100 years old. We have found that, in the past, some of it was not maintained the way it should have been and, over time, it will begin to crumble. That’s what we’re finding. So, what we’re doing is trying to play ‘catch up’. The biggest complaint, generally, that we hear is regarding the water and sewer — water line leaks, sewer leaks, trash not being picked up on time — and anything that directly impacts a person’s life. Local government is the level of government that most directly impacts a human being. It’s not Washington (DC), it’s not Columbia. If you don’t get your trash picked up on Tuesday morning, you’re not going to be happy. It matters. If there’s trash and debris on the ground, it’s not clean and tidy, you’re not going to be happy. We have a new Water and Sewer Director. He started a few months before me. But, I quickly found that he’s got 48 years of experience. The people who do his type job, there are few of them. It’s not a big industry to run a water and sewer authority. So, to find people like him, finding people that are good, is difficult. He came in and he’s turning everything around. It is not going to happen overnight. We didn’t get in this mess overnight, it’s not going to be turned around overnight. One of the major issues the Water Department has is the problems caused by people flushing ‘disposable wipes’ down the toilet. Just because it says ‘disposable’ doesn’t mean it’s biodegradable.
Another concern I had when I started looking into the books is that, we weren’t bringing in enough money. A few years ago, council passed the increase for water and sewer and a lot of people got upset. I understand. I don’t like paying any more than I have to, either. But, it had not been raised for a long time. The problem with that is, we weren’t bringing in any more money but our expenses kept going up. So, simple math tells me that if my expenses keep going up and my revenues remain constant, then I’m going to be running deficits. I looked for the audits. In over 8 years, we had a $2.7 million deficit. We spent $2.7 million more than we had. The water and sewer and the stormwater are what are called ‘business enterprises’. They’re not part of the general fund. They’re their own business and they’ve got their own section in our audit. In there, we were losing money constantly, just hemorrhaging money. Well, if you don’t have the money coming through your business enterprise, tax payer dollars have got to pick up because it’s got to be fixed somehow. Without the funds, we can’t come and fix a water leak or the raw sewage that’s coming down the street. Last year, we implemented another increase but, it only affects people who use more than 5,000 gallons a month. We had to do that to keep our cash flow up so that we could continue not only to make repairs but, to improve our system.
What percentage of the city’s population uses less than 5,000 gallons of water each month?
Out of 3,052 customers, it only affects approximately 20 percent of the population. So, 80 percent of the customers will not see any change. Only 20 percent will see an increase.
Have you encountered an issue that could not be resolved or a problem that simply could not be fixed?
No, I haven’t. Like I said, this is an ongoing process. We’re about to apply for close to $10 million in grants to address water/sewer/stormwater issues. The state has over $1 billion in ARP (American Rescue Plan) money. They set aside $900 million for cities and localities across the state to make applications for ‘impactful’ projects. So, our application is going to be close to $10 million. What we’re going to try to do is fix water and sewer and stormwater. Stormwater is a primary focus. It’s a problem right there where Hardee’s is, going down East Broad and West Broad, and then, down Dargan. We all know, when you drive into town and it’s raining, it’s a ‘lake’. I haven’t found anything that cannot be fixed. But, sometimes, it just takes a little while. These problems didn’t happen overnight, they’re not going to be fixed overnight.
Where do you see the City of Darlington in the next 5-10 years?
In the next 5 to 10 years, Darlington is not going to look like it does right now. Assuming that we continue on the path we are right now, where we have a majority of council that is supporting the City Manager and these departments, and they will allow us the funds on a continual basis. As long as council will continue to allow the city departments to better themselves and fund them properly, the city’s going to look much different than it does now.
Right now, there’s about $175 million in development going on in the city area. Darlington is coming back to life. Fortunately, we’ve got longtime residents who care about the city and are using their money to try to better it and open new stores. Darlington is going to look a lot better than it does.
Also, we’ve got the streetscape grant and that’s a beautification. But, we want the area to look nice and we’re working on that. We’re going into the final design phase with the engineers. They’re doing surveys now. This should be completed next year. I’m very optimistic about what Darlington is going to be in the next 5 to 10 years.
Do you think you would like to remain in this position for the next 5 to 10 years?
Yes, because we are making a difference. The city is a team, I just happen to be City Manager. But, I can’t do my job without these dedicated employees around me. They get up early and come to work and a lot of times, they go home late. They are called out in the middle of the night because of water line breaks, sewage running down streets, burning buildings or an active shooter. Whatever it is, they get up out of their beds and put themselves in harm’s way. We are a team down here and I’m happy to be working with them.