Friday was always a good day for a field trip, and with their permission in hand, Commissioner Mark Marion and Chairman Bill Goins of the Surry County Board of Commissioners visited North Surry Secondary School to talk to pupils about their role in county government and to check what the students knew about how the county affects their lives.
Eric Jessup, the former longtime multi-sport coach and multiple-time conference wrestling coach of the year, welcomed the commissioners to his first term of business law class. “These guys have more impact on your life than the president or the feds,” he told the students.
His class was joined by students from the drawing class as well as designing web pages for a free talk ranging from the county budget to the new detention center, and all across the Atlantic to talk about how events in Ukraine affect life. and prices here at home.
For Goins, it was a return to form to be ahead of a class and back to his old stomping grounds among the North Surry Greyhounds. On retiring from the Surry County school system in 2020 and transitioning into a new public service role, Goins said: “It was the right time in my life. We do this work to help; it’s not for the money.
Ever an educator, Goins approached the display screen to present the data while gently pushing and pulling student responses. Not one to stray too far from where he is needed, the president was leaving the conference in North Surry this morning for a stint as deputy principal at White Plains Elementary. You can get Goins out of the classroom, but his spirit as an educator is alive and well past retirement.
Marion and Goins posed questions to the students and while it can be difficult to get up to speed for the first period, the students were responsive and asked questions that belied their age.
Among these were open-ended questions about the size of the county’s budget, or the size of the emergency fund, or how many motor vehicles are operating in the county that weren’t in the study guide. They did, however, allow for open dialogue and some fun guesses/corrections. “Yes,” Marion replied, “the county budget is $1 million, just multiply it several times.”
The students wanted to know what commissioners do in their official capacity, so they explained how resolutions and ordinances are passed in place of county-level laws. Scarcity of resources means not everyone can get what they want and sticking to a budget is important, it was the sum of budgeting and finance.
Goins went into detail about the budget and appropriations process, and why having money in an emergency fund is necessary, a heavy enough job for high school students as early as Friday.
Marion followed that up with an overview of the new detention facility, including some of the starkest figures on overcrowding at the prison. A gentle reminder to avoid crime was given, avoiding a stint with Sheriff Steve C. Hiatt and Dobson’s team.
The students were curious about public safety in general and what would happen if the state closed the Surry County Jail due to overcrowding. They heard about the high price of sending detainees to other counties to be held there – and all the additional costs involved in returning them for trial.
Commissioners mentioned detainees being sent to Alleghany, Watauga and Avery counties to be held when Surry County has no room. At a cost of over $50/day, not including the assistant’s salary for driving, gas and vehicle maintenance to deliver the inmate, costs can add up quickly.
More than dollars and cents, “it’s a safety issue, not just for inmates but for correctional staff and visitors,” Goins said of the need for more capacity.
Marion went further noting the goal of around eight inmates per block, but sometimes now that number can reach over 20. “You have guys lying on mats in the intake area. It’s not human, you may be a criminal, but you don’t have to be treated like an animal.
The need for more space for female inmates was discussed, students were told that if the prison was completed today it would already be over capacity for women.
A student asked what plans were in place for non-binary inmates, a question that proves that young people today think about things differently than their predecessors. “We have detention cells and individual cells that can be made available to them,” Marion replied, slipping in a gender-neutral pronoun without wasting time.
Students understood proportional representation and the need for an odd number of council members to break a tie. Marion explained: “If all commissioners thought the same way, how many commissioners would you need? A.”
The gentlemen agreed that the best part of the job is to help their constituents. “Many calls are made to us to complain, but this call that helps someone is worth it,” added Marion.
“It may not seem relevant to your life, but we are here to help you and enjoy your life,” he advised. “It’s not for the money, sometimes it’s a full time job. If you’re doing this job for about $8,000 a year, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Marion and Goins have both expressed satisfaction with what can be an hour-long job as commissioner, but both have expressed a desire to limit their service to the board to two terms to allow for new perspectives and ideas. .
With five dissenting opinions and a budget of over $80 million a year, commissioners must weigh the good and the bad. Goins said that means pausing occasionally to “slow the turnover” of county government to ensure wise spending decisions are made.
When all was said and done, and he closed the meetings, Goins said, “We don’t always agree with each other, but we always leave as friends.”