Our View: Pasquotank’s Keaton leaving big shoes to fill

The Daily Advance

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Twenty-five years is a long time in any one job these days.

It takes someone special to not only survive, but to thrive.

Such is the case with Randy Keaton, Pasquotank County’s longtime manager of nearly 26 years, who will be retiring at the end of April to start a new career as deputy executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission in Chesapeake, Va.

“I’ve got many more years that I plan to work and want to work,” said Keaton, 53, who plans to continue living in Pasquotank County and commute to his job an hour away.

Filling the shoes of the area’s longest serving manager will be difficult. The board of commissioners is expected to appoint an interim manager while it conducts a search for a permanent manager. It remains to be seen whether the board will stay inside or go outside.

During his long tenure, Keaton has dealt with 28 different elected county commissioners — some who served briefly, and others with a longer tenure.

Board chairman Jeff Dixon, who’s father Jimmie was a commissioner, noted that Keaton has been instrumental in many county projects, including construction of new multi-million dollar facilities including Pasquotank County High School, a new public safety department building and library, a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant, and the building shared by the county Health Department and Department of Social Services.

Commissioner Bill Sterritt said Keaton helped save taxpayers money by refinancing much of its debt, and said he’s been a “driving force” in the community, especially in finding funding for public schools and College of The Albemarle.

Keaton learned early on he had to be on his toes, well-informed and flexible with an elected board of commissioners, whose constituents are nearly always opposed to any tax increases.

As architect of the annual budget, he was able to keep the county among the lowest taxed in the state, while securing tax hikes in tough years when revenues were lean.

He helped lead last year’s push for a referendum that asked voters to approve a quarter-penny sales tax increase, which voters rejected. The revenue would have generated about $1 million a year to pay for much-needed capital needs at both the aging Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools and College of the Albemarle.

We encourage the next manager to continue that effort.

Keaton, with Small’s assistance, was always looking to get the biggest bang for the buck with the county.

For example, last year the county refinanced a $14.2 million loan for the new Elizabeth City Middle School that reduced the interest rate from a 4 to 5 percent variable to 2.59 percent fixed — estimated to save the county $1.8 million over the life of the loan.

The county also modified a $6.3 million loan that funded the A-building addition of College of the Albemarle and renovation of the former library on Main Street into the tax office. The change reduced the interest rate from 4.32 percent to 2.76 percent.

Keaton’s final budget in Pasquotank was approved by commissioners last June. The $37 million spending plan included no tax increase, and minimal cuts to various departments.

Likewise over the years, commissioners quickly learn they’ve got to be just as strong with Keaton as he is with them. Much of the credit for holding the line on taxes goes to the commissioners, who often played tug of war with Keaton to whittle down any tax increase.

“I don’t make decisions,” Keaton said six years ago after his 20th anniversary. “I just carry out their (commissioners) goals and directives.”

Over the years, most of the county commissioners will tell you they appreciate Keaton’s hard work, commitment to community, and straightforward approach to tackling problems. But he learned also that he couldn’t please everybody all the time.

For instance, a former Commissioner John Kitchen once criticized Keaton saying, “He’ll spend every penny he gets his hands on and get this county so much into debt.”

That’s the uneven territory over which Keaton has had to tread during his tenure.

Meanwhile, the current board will soon learn how difficult it will be to fill Keaton’s shoes. That will not be easy, if at all possible.

“You don’t serve 26 years without a lot of knowledge and we’re losing that knowledge,” said current board vice chairman Joe Winslow.


Keaton Leaving

Won't be long now before the residents of Pasquotank County find out how much financial trouble we are in. Whenever someone retires suddenly after "doing such a great job" for so long, the truth usually comes out. Keep your eyes open now.

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