The Wake County commissioners charted a slow, deliberative course on transit planning Friday after announcing they had hired a new county manager with transit experience in Virginia and Florida.
Jim Hartmann, county manager since 2011 for Seminole County, Fla., will start work in April as successor to David Cooke, who retired last fall after 13 years as Wake County manager. Hartmann, a Coast Guard veteran, ran county governments in Colorado and South Carolina before spending six years as city manager in Alexandria, Va.
“What I bring to Wake County is a wealth of experience that I’ve had in many other really great communities,” Hartmann said by phone from his office in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. “I realize that transportation is on the table, and that is certainly an area I’ve had experience with. Community mobility is just so important, and every community comes at it differently.”
Orlando’s SunRail line will open four commuter train stations in Seminole County this spring. During Hartmann’s tenure in Alexandria, he said, he had a hand in efforts to expand the Washington Metro rail line.
“They’re in the process now of implementing a bus rapid transit piece between different Metro stations,” Hartmann said. “There was a lot of discussion in the community about this. We ended up landing on BRT but designing it so it could accommodate some sort of rail in the future, if there was the money for that.”
Hartmann’s hire was announced in Holly Springs at the commissioners’ annual planning retreat.
“He’s seen a pretty good spectrum of the East Coast,” said Phil Matthews, the Wake commissioners chairman. “We really appreciate his talent and his vast experience.”
The commissioners did not talk about Hartmann’s background during their meeting, but they spent much of the day refining goals that will help define the new county manager’s priorities this year.
When Wake commissioners set annual goals a year ago, they intended in 2013 to evaluate the Wake Transit Plan, to lead a community discussion on its elements and alternatives, and to gauge public support for a referendum on a half-cent sales tax for transit.
They didn’t go that far last year, and they don’t aim to go that far in the transit goal they tentatively approved Friday for 2014. They plan only to “support community discussion and development of transit strategies that evaluate the investment alternatives, feasibility and governance.”
The commissioners agreed to devote a work session to transit, probably in May or June. Joe Durham, the acting county manager, said they’ll use that meeting to “define a process for how we go forward, doing that assessment, doing that evaluation, hopefully leading to some kind of plan that could be considered in the future.”
Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, the board’s most outspoken transit advocate, pushed for more.
“I hear from a lot of people looking at what Durham and Orange are doing,” Ward said.
She said Wake’s two neighbors recently won federal funding for their light-rail line, but commissioner Paul Coble corrected her: federal approval for planning only, no money yet. Ward waved him off and continued her complaint.
“Well, they are a lot further along than we are, no matter how you shake it,” Ward said. “They put it to a vote of the people, and they are moving forward on transit. ... We need to talk about it, and we never have done it.”
Some advocates would like to see Wake voters consider a transit sales tax in the fall of 2015 to help pay for beefed up bus service and new rail transit lines. But Coble, who has set the board’s restrained pace on transit, said he wants to evaluate existing bus service before talking about big investments in commuter trains or light rail.
“Instead of spending all your time worrying about what you’re going to do 20 or 30 years out, some of the conversation ought to be about addressing current needs and short-term needs,” Coble said in an interview. “To say we’re going to spend $2 billion to build this grand system seems to be putting the process in the wrong order. Let’s take what we have and work on it.”
Hartmann said he was not ready to talk about Wake County particulars, which include proposed commuter trains from Durham to Garner. The commuter trains planned for the Orlando area “will be a major congestion reliever for the Interstate 4 traffic,” he said.
“Rail transit is one piece of the plan, and how to link other forms of transit to the rail is certainly important,” Hartmann said. “In Alexandria, we studied how we could get another stop on the Metro system. We did it by awarding a lot of density to a developer if they would help finance it.”
In Wake County, Hartmann will take charge of government in what is now the nation’s 48th most populous county, up from 85th in 2000. Wake’s population, estimated this year at 986,619, is expected to top 1 million in 2015 – more than double Seminole County’s headcount of 431,000 in 2012.
Wake’s foreign-born population has doubled in size since 2000 to more than 122,000. After continued growth in ethnic diversity, Wake counts 5.8 percent of its residents as Asian and 10 percent as Hispanic.
County officials told commissioners Friday that economic indicators and revenue collections have continued to improve as North Carolina climbs out of the recent recession. Sales of housing units reached 15,680 in 2013, and 6,195 building permits were issued – in both cases, the most since 2007.
Sales tax collections are running much higher than revenue officials had expected, with a growth rate for the current fiscal year now projected at 7.9 percent – well above the 4.1 percent that had been budgeted. They expect further growth of 11.7 percent in fiscal year 2014-15.
“I haven’t seen this kind of growth, ever,” said Johnna Rogers, a deputy county manager.
‘A progressive county’
Hartmann was one of 58 applicants for the Wake County manager’s job. Ten candidates were interviewed by the full board at the beginning of this month, and three finalists were interviewed Monday. The names of the other two finalists have not been disclosed.
Hartmann, who recently turned 61, said he had expected to stay in Seminole County longer than three years, but he could not pass up the chance to move to Wake County.
“My horizon in Wake County will be, you know, ’til I’m 70,” Hartmann said. “This is where you go, to a progressive county. It’s going to be longer term. When I have the opportunity to go to Wake, that is very, very attractive.”