Macon County’s Finance Director, Evelyn Southard, is set to retire at the end of the month after 19 years of service.
“I truly appreciate the amazing career that has been afforded me in my home county. It is not every day that happens,” said Southard.
“Evelyn is one of, if not the top financial director in the state,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “Someone else will be taking over her position, but you can’t replace someone like Evelyn Southard. Her knowledge and experience is impeccable and has been crucial to the success of Macon County.”
Before serving her home county, she worked with Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College for nearly 15 years. During her tenure with Macon County, she advised the county in regards to finance on countless projects and budgets. From 1998 to 2000, Southard assisted the Board of Education with facilitating school construction through work with a consulting firm. “Since counties are required in N.C. to provide school facilities, I have worked closely with school administration to develop funding sources for those projects,” said Southard.
Commissioner Kevin Corbin, who first met Southard during his tenure on the school board, applauded Southard for her tireless efforts to provide outstanding service to Macon County citizens. “For as long as I have known you, you have always kept the best interest of the citizens in mind, and I have always admired and respected you for that,” said Corbin during October’s board of commissioners’ meeting.
Southard left Macon County in 1995 to accept a job as Finance Director/Deputy County Manager in Edgecombe County for three and a half years. It was there that she reached an accumulated service time of 31 years and retired to move back to Franklin.
“Soon after moving back, I was back in the workforce on a part time basis doing some consulting work,” she said. “In January 2005, Macon County lost its Finance Director and asked me to come back for about six months on an interim basis while they searched for a Finance Director. I did and they didn’t. There was never any intention of my taking the job permanently at the onset; that is just the way it worked out, but I have no regrets. I think it was a time in the history of Macon County that they needed some management skills that I happened to have and it worked out well for everyone.”
She explained that although she doesn’t intend to come out of retirement a second time, she will always be around to help her home county in the future. “I will never turn my back on Macon County,” she said. “It is home to me, it has been very good to me, provided me an amazing career with a good living, and I will always do what I can to help.”
During October’s board meeting, Commissioner Chairman Brian McClellan joked that Southard should not get too comfortable in retirement because he was confident that he and the other commissioners would be calling on Southard to help them with future endeavors.
According to Beale, it is Southard’s dedication to the county that allows her to be a stand-out in her profession. “She always has the best intention for Macon County’s citizens at heart,” said Beale. “She always strives to appropriate the tax payers’ money as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Throughout Southard’s career, she has not only received numerous memorable individual awards, but has also brought state-level recognition to Macon County. During her reign as Finance Director, Macon County began participating in the National Governmental Finance Officers Association Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting program. Since the first award in 1993, the county has continued to receive the award, totaling 17 state recognitions. “We received the award the first year that we submitted for review and have continued to enjoy that excellence and bring that recognition to Macon County,” said Southard. “The 2011 statements are being prepared now to be submitted for the 18th award. I see no reason that we will not receive it again.”
Southard has served on the executive board of the N.C. County Finance Officers Association for five years, becoming President of that organization in 1996. She has been an active and supportive member of the organization throughout her entire career.
“I was chosen as the North Carolina Outstanding Finance Officer of the Year in 1997 and was honored by Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for that achievement,” said Southard.
She successfully completed the N.C. Certified Finance Officer program and became a Certified Finance Officer in the State of N.C. Southard also completed the County Administration course at the School of Government in UNC-Chapel Hill.
One of her greatest accomplishments is being a part of securing financial success and competence for Macon County. “The financial stability that Macon County enjoys today is a tremendous highlight for me and I hope I have played some part in that along with many others,” said Southard. “Being smart in the good times makes the bad times manageable. I encourage and challenge Macon County to continue with that mindset.”
According to Southard, the current state of the economy has proved to be the most challenging obstacle she has faced during her career. Stricter budgets and mandates on the state level have forced not only her, but all department heads to become creative when preparing the budget and managing the county. “The last three years have been the most difficult because of the economic downturn in our country,” said Southard. “Macon County has not escaped that environment. We have had tremendous loss in revenue for a county our size and still made every effort to provide the highest level of service possible with the funds available. Macon County’s department heads have stepped up and done a tremendous job in recognizing the problems and tightening their belts to make it work.”
The most significant financial crisis Southard has experienced came in 2008 after the annual budget was approved. “Revenues started slacking off and we saw that if that downturn continued, we would not bring in the projected revenues to support the appropriations in that budget,” explained Southard. In January, the Board of Commissioners made the decision to cut about $1.3 million from the already existing budget.
“That could have been a crisis had we ignored the reality of it, but we were able to get in front of it and begin the process of monitoring and addressing the downturn on a regular basis,” said Southard. “Macon County boards have been very attentive to the financial situation that has affected all of us in recent years and have provided leadership to bring our county through this.”
Commissioners vowed that regardless of who replaces Southard, they are certain to “be lost” without her guidance. Through Southard’s work with Macon County’s current board, the county’s fund balance was able to grow by about $1.5 million in 2011.
“That amount offsets the amount of fund balance that was appropriated in 2012 to keep us at a break-even status,” she said. “Because of the economic situation, it has been imperative that the board understand the options that they have and the consequences of those options. The very fact that they have come to count on me and have put their trust in me to provide them information and techniques based on sound information, so they could make the tough decisions facing them, is the catalyst for the ‘lost feeling’ if there is one. I am truly honored by that.”
“I think all of the commissioners would agree that Evelyn has helped us tremendously with her understanding of county finances which has allowed us to persevere through financial hardships,” said Beale.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers joked that he appreciated Southard’s patience and understanding whenever he came to her with “stupid questions.” “I can’t thank you enough Evelyn, for not laughing at me and always taking the time to answer my questions and work with the commissioners, you will honestly be greatly missed,” said Kuppers.
Although she is looking forward to retirement and spending more time with her family, she admits she is going to miss the day-to-day interaction with the people she has worked with for so many years. “From the staff of the Finance Department, department heads and staff, management, board of commissioners, the public, as well as numerous people across the state in various agencies that I have come to know and love, I am going to miss working with all of them,” she said. “I will also miss the challenge that the job brings every day, the constant spinning of the brain cogs, and being a part of making the wishes of the board a reality.”
After her official last day on Friday, Oct. 28, Southard plans to unwind and prepare for whatever retirement may bring. “My first job is to de-stress, do some long overdue home projects, enjoy the holidays, and then do some traveling, and spend some relaxed time with family and friends,” she said.
During October’s board of commissioners’ meeting, Southard’s last with the board, commissioners jokingly expressed their doubt in being able to continue without Southard’s financial guidance. According to Southard, a replacement has already been found and will pick up right where she leaves off.
“A very competent, experienced replacement has been found who probably needs no advice from me,” said Southard, and her advice to the new Finance Director: “I would say this is not a position, it is a job and it is not an easy job. It cannot be accomplished successfully alone,” noted Southard. “It is very important to garner the support and understanding of staff, department heads, and agencies that you deal with. There are times that the Finance Director is the one who has to blow the whistle, and sometimes that is not the most popular seat in the house, but when you have garnered the trust and confidence of those around you, they will for the most part understand your position and get in line with the system. By the same token, sometimes those individuals have circumstances that do not fit the mold, and you have to help them accomplish what they need to do even if it requires a little back tracking. When they know that you will help them in a bind, they will do their best to follow procedures you establish for normal transactions.”
The specific advice Southard has to offer her replacement in regards to working the board of commissioners is this: “They do not like surprises and they do not like to raise taxes. They want to always know that they are being given the most honest, complete answers that are available. ‘I don’t know at this time but I will get you the answer as soon as possible’ is a perfectly good answer to a question if it is the truth. Don’t try to make them think you know everything at a moment’s notice. They do not expect it, they appreciate the fact that you give them truths and not guesses, and you will not earn their trust and respect by having to dig out of a hole. Always follow up and provide the answers to the questions without sugar coating. By following these simple procedures you will establish a high level of trust that brings respect ... I wish my replacement a long and successful career in Macon County. I wish Macon County a bright future with continued strong leadership without personal agendas that will keep us a leader among N.C. counties.”
A reception to celebrate Southard’s career and wish her well in retirement will be held on Thursday, Oct. 27, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the courthouse annex building. The public is invited to attend.