LUMBERTON — When it comes to administering county government, Robeson County’s new manager has a simple philosophy — treat government operations as a business.
Ricky Harris, 54, last month was unanimously chosen by the Board of Commissioners as the first American Indian to hold the county’s top administrative position. He had been acting as the county’s interim manager since the retirement in November 2010 of Ken Windley.
“Like a business, the bottom line is so important with operating a government,” Harris said in a recent interview. “As a manager you have to understand the need to provide certain services to the residents, and then find a happy medium between the need of services and the cost for providing those services. I think I have that ability.”
A resident of Prospect and lifelong county resident, Harris served as an assistant county manager from September 2006 until becoming the county’s interim manager. While having served as the county’s Elections Board director before becoming assistant county manager, he attributes a majority of his management experience to his 25 years of working in private industry. He held various positions with L.O.F. Glass in Laurinburg — now Pilkington Glass — and served as a production supervisor at the Clayson Knitting plant in Red Springs before going to work in county government.
Harris holds a bachelor of arts degree in Political Science from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and in 2008 completed the county administration program offered by the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill. He received his master’s degree in Public Administration from UNCP in May.
Windley, who originally hired Harris as an assistant manager, told The Robesonian this week that the county commissioners made an excellent choice giving Harris the job.
“Ricky is not only hard working, he’s a good person,” Windley said. “As an assistant manager he always worked hard to do whatever I, or the commissioners, asked him to do. He has finished his master’s degree, a condition put on him by me. I’m real proud of him. He stuck with it. Given the opportunity he will work well for the county for a long time.”
Commissioner Noah Woods, chairman of the board, also gave Harris high marks.
“He has demonstrated his abilities to us (county commissioners) both as an assistant manager and as the interim manager,” Woods said. “I’m very pleased. “I have plenty of confidence in him.”
Harris was selected from 18 applicants considered by the commissioners. As the manager of a county with 135,000 residents and 1,100 employees, he will be paid an annual salary of $125,000. Windley, who managed the county for eight years, was making $130,000 when he retired after more than 30 years in public service.
Harris said that he hopes to continue moving the county forward by building on the programs and initiatives that have already been paying off.
“We have to find ways to do more with less,” Harris said. “Industry has been doing that for 20 years. Now the need to do things that way has hit the public sector.”
During the past two years, Harris has managed to write annual fiscal budgets that have resulted in a decrease in county property taxes, eliminated 20 county positions without any employees losing their jobs, funded several capital projects, and provided raises for county employees.
He says the most important thing he has learned is the importance of having good county employees and a progressive Board of Commissioners.
“Our county employees are our greatest asset,” he said. “We have a truly fantastic staff. The best thing about this job is my having the opportunity to work every day with these employees.”
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.