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Wyatt announces retirement

Steve Wyatt speaking to Board of Commissioners is shown in a 2017 Lightning  file photo. Steve Wyatt speaking to Board of Commissioners is shown in a 2017 Lightning file photo.

Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt, who has shepherded to completion new schools and Blue Ridge Community College additions, the health sciences center at Pardee Hospital, new emergency response crews and parks and recreation improvements, announced on Friday that he is retiring.

In a news release, a county public information officers pointed out that during Wyatt’s tenure as county manager, there have been four different Henderson County school superintendents, four Henderson County Sheriffs and three BRCC presidents. The 11th Congressional District has had four different congressmen and there have been four North Carolina governors, and four U.S. presidents. Wyatt will remain in the job until the Board of Commissioners install his successor.

“County government never sleeps; it is a 365/24/7 operation," he said in a statement issued Friday. "The men and women on the front lines protect and serve with little fanfare. They deserve credit. They have my respect and gratitude. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as your County Manager, to seek solutions to our challenges and to strengthen our position as we face tomorrow.

"The 15 years I have spent working with the commissioners and staff of Henderson County have been the highlight of my 38-year professional career. However, ‘for everything, there is a season,’ and an appropriate time, and I believe this to be the time to close this chapter and begin, God willing, the next.

"The county is in a strong position financially and is blessed with competent, capable leadership from the Board of Commissioners and throughout each county department," he added. "The foundation is solid and the best days for our County lie ahead. I am grateful to have been a part of laying this foundation.”

In an interview, he reflected on the demands of the job, especially over the past year, when the county has managed its way through the public health and business slowdown challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

"What I want is the ability to shape my own schedule and to have some control over that," he said. "That's my main objective and (what comes next) will not be the seven-day-a-week schedule that is necessary to perform the deeds of county manager. It's a great opportunity for the team that we've got."

He had spoken with commissioners one by one in recent days, and then made his resignation official during a closed session of the board on Wednesday morning.

“I will say they tried to talk to me out of it but as you know I have never had any trouble making a decision — and then you gotta make it work," he said.

What will he miss most?

“The people that I work with,” he said. “Being able to see something that needs to be done, either something that needs to be fixed or to see an opportunity like the Health Sciences Center, for instance, and make that become a reality. I’ve been given a real gift in my career to be able to see that things are done. It's been an honor to be part of some really great things in Henderson County and all of Western North Carolina.

“I feel like there's a next chapter,” he added. “I’m not sure what that it is but I believe God is not done with me yet.”

He said he did not know whether the commissioners plan to name an interim manager or how they may form a search for the county's next chief administrator.

“I’ve agreed to stay on until they figure that out,” he said. “They’re giving it thought, I'm having conversations with them individually. They've got qualified people that could step into that role and they can evalulate that. I’m planning on staying in the community. This is a community that people work their whole lives to come to. It's a great place, great community, great resources. This community is in a real sweet spot. So my plan is to be here and see what it brings.”

A political conservative, Wyatt was known as a sure but cautious guide to commissioners, offering recommendations and suggestions while always emphasizing that final decisions on major items and even some smaller ones belonged to them as the elected leaders of the county.

As county manager, Wyatt played a key role in the intensive behind-the-scene negotiations that led to a five-party agreement to build the health sciences education building and Comprehensive Cancer Center on the Pardee campus, the contentious four-year-long process that ended with the county's decision to spend $60 million on the Hendersonville High School new construction/renovation project, major investment in new ambulance deployments to ensure quick-response in emergencies — especially heart attack calls — the new Thomas H. "Tommy" Thompson EMS headquarters and the purchase of the old Hendersonville Christian School property for a county recreation center.

In 2018, when a candidate for a Board of Commissioners seat suggested Wyatt was overpaid, citing $226,700 in bonuses over a two-year span, commissioners strongly defended Wyatt's value.

“It was an enthusiastic unanimous endorsement of the fact that he has earned that,” then Commissioner Tommy Thompson said of the board's discussion and vote in closed session to grant the most recent bonuses and retention incentives. “This county has no idea the job that he has. If you look at the hospital, corporations, the head of other institutions around here he’s not making any more money than any of them are. His overall salary is nowhere near what a lot of these CEOs and what a lot of these corporate heads make. We’re still conservative for the amount (of pay) for what he produces.”

Among the strengths of Wyatt and the team he assembled was a willingness to borrow money at attractive rates for long-term capital projects and the aggressive pursuit of refinancing when interest rates fell. His conservative approach to finance was exhibited as recently as this past year, when Wyatt, in response to the coronavirus shutdown, imposed a hiring freeze and ordered an immediate halt to all capital projects that were on the drawing board but not yet under contract. In January, Wyatt reported to the Board of Commissioners that collections in sales and property tax had turned out better than projected, putting the county on solid footing as it entered the preliminary drafting of the 2021-22 budget.

An alumnus of Appalachian State University, Wyatt was a founding member and past president of ASU Local Government Alumni Association, whose mission is to support professional training and continuing education. He has been presented with their Distinguished Alumni Award and served as the chairman of the University Board of Visitors.

A city and county manager for 38 years, Wyatt won the job as the top administrator here in 2006. He previously working in Moore, Polk and Catawba counties and the towns of Chadbourn, in Eastern North Carolina, and Kingstree, South Carolina.

The respect his peers hold for him statewide was evident when he received the prestigious John Whitehurst Service Award at the North Carolina City & County Management Association Winter Seminar last month for his service and dedication to local government management. The award, given only when exceptional candidates are nominated, was developed “to honor North Carolina managers who follow Mr. Whitehurst’s example of consistency and diligence in his support of all local government professionals.”

Wyatt has been actively involved with the NCCCMA throughout his career.  He has served on the Emergency Response Committee, the Budget Committee, and the Scholarship Committee. In addition to serving on the Membership Support Committee, he is also a past chairman. He has also served colleagues across the state through his work with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. He has served on the Finance and Taxation Policy Committee, the Legislative Goals Committee and Intergovernmental Affairs.

“I cannot think of another manager who has devoted himself to the profession as has Steve Wyatt,” Lee County Manager John Crumpton said in a nomination, adding that the award signified “the love he has for our profession and the people in it.”