County Manager Announces Intention to Seek Other Career Opportunities
By Tammy Dunn
Montgomery County Commissioners learned yesterday that County Manager Matthew Woodard is seeking new career opportunities. In the manager’s budget message Woodard broached the issue by stating, “I anticipate this will be my last budget here in Montgomery County.” He added that the time was “opportune to search out new responsibilities” and wished “to collectively acknowledge, and thank, the many people who have helped [him]” throughout his career with the county.
Woodard was named interim manager in 2011 following the resignation of then county manager Lance Metzler and has held the post since that time. During Woodard’s tenure, the county’s fund balance rose from single digit percentages, which was much lower than deemed acceptable by state governing authorities, to roughly five times that amount. The county also refinanced existing debt on water, school and jail projects to realize millions in savings and strategically placed itself for the opportunity to construct a new education complex, which is scheduled to be completed next month.
In a separate email to the board of commissioners, Woodard wrote, “I wanted to be as upfront as possible from the very beginning. I do not wish my departure to leave you, or any staff members, in a predicament.” He further noted, “I would be remiss if I did not give you proper consideration and an awareness of my intentions. I only wish the very best for Montgomery County.”
Woodard’s announcement comes at a time when the board is looking at an increase to employee salaries, either substantially across all departments or with a proposal to significantly increase salaries for deputies, nurses and a select few other employees. Woodard acknowledged in his budget message the significant impact of all county employees since the beginning of the pandemic: “For their part, the employees of Montgomery County are certainly worthy of praise. Throughout this spring and summer, our employees kept the doors and services of county government open, kept businesses and industry moving, and provided assistance to those most negatively impacted by the pandemic. It is an honor to work with people who, by their actions, set an example for the county, state, and even the country. They were the first to mandate mask wearing, the first to offer free COVID-19 testing in all of their municipalities, and the first to open the doors to the public with the determined commitment to serve while being safe.”
It was at Woodard’s bequest that the county acted ahead of the state in declaring a public health emergency and required the wearing of masks to curb the spread of COVID-19. The county, also at Woodard’s request, acted swiftly to put CARES Act funds to proper use, hiring off-duty paramedics to set up drive-thru testing sites in all of the towns. Fast action and visionary steps were trademarks under Woodard’s term as the head of county government. Former chairman of the board of commissioners, Jackie Morris, complimented Woodard’s ability to prioritize the issues of the day which needed to be addressed. In 2014, Montgomery County was also first to get legislation passed to allow county employees into the State Employees and Teachers Health plan. As with consolidation of the departments of health and social services, this move positively impacted the county’s financial bottom line, while significantly improving county employee health care benefits. Other counties soon followed with legislative requests aimed at reproducing the success proven in Montgomery County.
Morris recalled those times noting how the county struggled with finding a plan “year after year” and that there were times the plans were simply not that great, “but was all we could afford.”
Morris was a part of the team when the county water system failed noting, “We had an emergency situation and we started the upgrade to the system, which has been extensive. There is still much to be done, but we’ve come a long way.”
The teamwork that was required to make the school a reality is one of the successes Morris noted that Woodard steer those three entities through. Morris noted that with this opportunity, 46 students graduated from high school with an associate degree this spring.
Current chairman of the board of county commissioners, Dottie Robinson, explained she was appointed as director of the department of social services around the same time that Woodard was hired. It was during that time that they moved to establishing a consolidated board of health and human services, being one of, if not the first in the state to do so. This allowed the social services and health departments to come under county management rather than management via a separate board. At the time there was an issue with one of the directors not working, yet there was not anything the county could do about the problem. The driving force for that move was financial.
The consolidation, via special legislation, dramatically improved the county’s finances. Similar legislation has since been requested by numerous counties across the state. Robinson stated that is the first opportunity she had to work with Woodard saying, “He helped me learn a lot about county government and county finance at that time. We worked together on salary ranges and other issues.” She went on to note Woodard’s attention to detail saying, “One thing about Matthew is, you have to come to him with a plan. If you want to make some changes, bring a plan to him. He will help you all he can, but he wants your input.”
Robinson went on to note Woodard’s abilities to plan, “He is a forward thinking person and that is what it took to get the high school plan to reality. That thinking is also what has allowed for the growth on the lake. Planning ahead for subdivisions and making the necessary changes to zoning, which is bringing in additional tax dollars that benefit all, takes that kind of thinking.”
“He really does care about the people of Montgomery County. He has always had the best interest of the citizens at heart,” stated Robinson.
Former Chair Wayne Wooten had praise for Woodard’s abilities to plan ahead stating, “Matthew is extremely smart, he knows a lot about a lot of things. While I was chairman we worked together well. He had forward thinking ideas and was not just focusing on the present; he was thinking down the road.” Wooten, who served for many years as sheriff of Montgomery County and has a unique perspective into that time stated, “That was not a lot of planning back then. When something broke we fixed it. Now that has completely changed. He tries to think ahead and I always appreciated that.”
The Early College, the Career and Technical Education Center and Central High School, which are a partnership between the county, the board of education, and Montgomery Community College, were a major focus point during Wooten’s time as chair. “He stayed on top of this big, big project. Most people in the county don’t realize how big and difficult this project is and how important it is. I was always impressed how he thought ahead of those things,” stated Wooten.
Praise for Woodard’s hard work was not limited to county commissioners. Former mayor of Troy, Roy Maness, bemoaned the announcement of Woodard’s intentions. “There are a lot of things this county can afford to lose; Matthew Woodard isn’t one of them. Matthew is very knowledgeable about county operations.” Mayor Maness noted the willingness of the county under Woodard’s leadership to help manage town costs for such county provided services as treated water, libraries and animal control services. “Matthew understood that the towns were the backbone of the county and without vibrant towns there won’t be a vibrant county.” Former Biscoe Mayor, Jimmy Blake, added that Woodard was honored in 2016 by the town for his unselfish contributions and resilient attitude. Blake talked about the Woodard family and their connection to the town of Biscoe, noting Woodard’s father once served as mayor of the town. Blake went on to speak about the town’s work with Woodard in many different areas noting, “It is the county’s loss.”
Mt. Gilead Mayor Chip Miller spoke about the town’s relationship with Woodard, noting in particular his work on the Union County water project. “Matthew took the bull by the horns so to speak. He kept us fully informed and we worked well together.”
County department heads were quick to reflect on their experiences with Woodard. Chris Hildreth, the county’s director of infrastructure and development, spoke to Woodard’s dedication. “You meet Matthew Woodard and easily recognize his intelligence. If you’re lucky enough to get to know him you start to recognize the fairness, then the sincerity, then the loyalty, and finally, the compassion he has for those he serves and serves with. In the most honorable and upright way he is a visionary leader who understands the mission of public service. Wherever he ends up will be a better place because of him – just like Montgomery County.” Renee Jones, county human resources director, found the same traits to be true. “I will miss his wit, his wisdom and his compassion for people; working for Matthew was quite the experience, I wish him well.”
When asked specifically why now was the time to end his relationship with Montgomery County government, Woodard spoke of his life in and outside of Montgomery County. “In the late 1970s my father’s job moved us from Montgomery County. Twenty years later, I chose to return, and my parents followed me back here to retire. They loved the people of Montgomery County so very much. Since then my parents have both passed and my daughter is now off at university. These life changes make you reflect, and professionally you have to look at what you think about what you can accomplish moving forward. I am grateful for the opportunity, but it feels right to start looking for the next chapter.” Woodard noted humorously that it may take a while: “I tend to stay put and work at the issues put before me, so I’m not an experienced job seeker. I’ve probably applied for less than 10 jobs my whole life. Nevertheless, I don’t want Montgomery County to be unprepared for my decision, so I felt it was the kind and responsible thing to do to let the board know that I intend to search for new career opportunities. I will work to see that it goes as smoothly as possible for the board and for employees.”
In the county budget message, Woodard summed up his career as one always supported by strong leaders. “I have worked for 11 different commissioners and five different chairpersons on the board. Despite that degree of turnover, the board has allowed me to voice a distinct direction for the county. With very few exceptions, these boards have unanimously supported my recommendations and actions over the last decade. I am very proud of the many things we have set out to accomplish and have accomplished, as well as for the things we have set out to avoid and have avoided- as financially those could have been more costly than what was accomplished.” When asked about the things that weren’t accomplished, Woodard smiled. “It’s been a seemingly never ending line of people with their hand out, and a lot of them good people with good ideas, but at the end of the day there is only so much money. The two tests for supporting a project with taxpayer dollars are (1) the return on the investment is greater than the investment itself and (2) can the same considerations be afforded to all who seek it. In other words, equity and equality – that’s what government has always meant to me and how I’ve tried to manage county government.”