YADKINVILLE — As students returned to their regular regime of learning, Yadkin County Commissioner Kevin Austin described the education commissioners received over the summer.
In addition to one every early spring in Washington D.C., the National Association of Counties holds a traveling national conference every summer.
“This is the first time any of our board has traveled out of state [for the conference] and it was a rewarding experience,” said Austin, who was one of the five board members who attended the conference in Columbus, Ohio, this year.
“Two years ago the national conference was in Charlotte so we got to go to that,” said Austin, who serves as chairman of the Yadkin County Board of Commissioners. He also has been to the conference in Washington D.C. several times.
Gathering commissioners from across the country to discuss issues as well as programs and methods of resolution, the conferences offer seminars and sessions presenting best practices from other counties.
“That to me is really the value,” said Austin. He was particularly impressed with learning about the development of a program he had first heard about years previously.
“There’s a thing called the Stepping Up Initiative that’s spread like wild fire across the country,” said Austin. “A couple of years before when we were in Charlotte they were talking a lot about this as a concept, and now it’s a reality.”
The Stepping Up Initiative (stepuptogether.org) tries to connect individuals who have mental illnesses and are serving time in jail to appropriate mental health services with the goal of keeping them out of jail.
“Many of the people that are in the jails across the country suffer mental issues so that’s a way of getting them out of jail and into mental treatment,” said Austin. “That’s the core of the Stepping Up Initiative and so now we are getting to hear how it’s working for people.
“I know Forsyth County has a program in place dealing with this portion of their jail population and I think they’re intending to expand on that ultimately,” he said. “Here in Yadkin County it has a value for sure, just on a smaller scale. I think you will see more and more of that in all counties in North Carolina.”
Although the topic of this conference, the opioid crisis, impacts every state, some topics may not seem useful to a small community like Yadkin County. At a recent conference, Austin learned how dealing with an emergency can become a high priority of even a little town.
“In our Washington conference, there was a great presentation about how South Dakota dealt with the pipeline protesters,” said Austin, who was impacted by the description of a small town turned into a city seemingly overnight.
“That was a very small county and when all the protesters came in and created their settlement there on the edge of that county, it just created a whole different set of problems,” he said. “Suddenly a small town, small county government along with all its staff have to become an equivalent to a large city. It kind of made me think, ‘Wow! You may have to be ready for just anything in this job.’”
One current topic Austin doesn’t have to expect to deal with in North Carolina any time soon still stuck with Austin from this summer’s conference.
“The conversations you have between the meetings can really get you thinking,” said Austin. “One that stuck in my mind particularly was hearing about some of the unintended consequences of marijuana legalization and what the reality of all that is.
“Some people in some of these states where it has been legalized were saying, ‘Don’t believe that it’s all good. There’s a lot of things that we didn’t think about when we legalized it that we are dealing with now.’
“People who were making their living illegally are now searching for other ways because the government has sort of taken this over,” said Austin. “If marijuana is a gateway drug then maybe those people who were making a living in the marijuana business may take the same clientele down a darker path.”
He said, “That’s a big concern and that’s a lot of what I understand is happening and to hear that firsthand is a real eye-opener.”
Not all conversations cover the issues of the moment. Some are procedural.
“There are people from all states and all political stripes so you have those elevator conversations. Some of them are very short,” said Austin, as he described the litany of questions expected upon meeting a new commissioner at a conference.
Although the size of the county and length of terms are of interest, it’s the duties of commissioners from other states that is of the most interest.
“It varies from state to state what counties are actually responsible for,” said Austin. “A lot of states’ counties are responsible for roads and in North Carolina, the counties are not responsible for the roads.
“You just get to have that kind of chit chat really and to learn and to make friends with people from other states,” said Austin, “and that’s when the real learning begins because you start talking about what are your problems and how are you solving them.”
“That’s the first one I’d been to,” said Commissioner Marion Welborn, who is looking forward to attending the convention next summer in Nashville, Tennessee. “I enjoyed it.”
Austin agreed. “I’m in my ninth year in this job as a commissioner and I’m glad to still be learning. That’s what these conferences are for. It’s just a great opportunity to learn.”
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @TBeanieTaylor.