Outgoing Coweta chief credits 'best' employees for success over 40-year career
The legacy we live is the legacy we leave. And when it comes to a legacy, retiring Coweta County Administrator Theron Gay is leaving a large impact on the county he loves. It is an impact that extended for 40 years of exceptional service to the county and its residents.
Gay’s last day of work with Coweta ended this past week. Considering his long tenure with the county and with so many possible topics to cover, The Citizen decided to have a conversation with Gay and let him have his say on his lengthy career and the things that were important to him. What follows was taken from that conversation.
Gay began his work with Coweta County in 1973 while in high school and continued through college, working in various positions at Coweta General Hospital. Upon graduating from college, Gay began working at the Coweta County Assessor’s Office and, in 1981, worked as an appraiser. In 1985 Gay became the chief appraiser and director of the county’s tax assessor’s office, where he stayed until 1993. It was during those years that Coweta had its first property reappraisal since 1974.
“This brought us up to current standards for property values and in equalizing the taxes which was very important so that everyone was paying their proportionate share,” Gay said. “That was a very important step that took us a couple of years to complete.”
It was during his years as tax assessor that Gay was offered the position at county administrator after the longtime administrator left the position.
“I didn’t think the timing was right so I actually turned the job down at that time,” said Gay. “A few years later the commissioners asked me if I would consider the job and I did take the job at that point.”
That was on April 15, 1993. It was time time of growth and change for Coweta, Gay explained.
“I’ve been looking back as some of the documents as I end my career. We were permitting 1,200-1,300 new homes per year. It was a really high growth time in the county,” Gay said. “My fear was that with all that growth I worried a little bit about whether we would be able to manage that growth and keep up with the services without having to raise taxes. It’s a lot easier to manage a static, non-changing entity than it is to manage a community that is growing. You have a lot of demands on your infrastructure and on your services. So we constantly worked on ways to do things quicker, faster and more efficient. And it helped us manage that growth. Coweta County has been able to manage that growth with very little increase in the millage rate.”
Within the growth and changes Gay said the idea was to have the best employees rather than the largest number of employees. And it was those employees, along with the ones today, whom Gay continuously praises as members of an effective team. To do so fits perfectly with Gay’s method of management where he is quick to acknowledge others while shying away from the praise given to him.
“The philosophy was have good employees, pay them a fair wage and keep them busy. They were happy, they were more productive,” said Gay.
Something that was a problem in some counties that Coweta addressed was allowing residential growth to outpace commercial and industrial growth.
“You have to have commercial and industrial growth to balance the tax digest. The communities that don’t do that usually have a very high millage rate that is necessary to pay for services,” said Gay. “So business and economics were always things we looked very strongly at. And through the years we implemented high-quality growth management strategies to manage that residential growth. Nobody wanted to stop the growth, but we did want to manage it. So we did a lot of things over the years to upgrade the standards to manage the growth.”
Gay said an outcome of that growth management resulted in the growth of the county’s municipalities. That was beneficial since a city can more easily provide services due to the geographical proximity of residents, Gay said.
“The cities, the county, the school system and the chamber of commerce did not always agree, but we did work together well and we did have one common goal - Coweta County,” Gay said of the various partnerships that were geared to the benefit of the county as a whole.
While it might not seem as significant today, the advent of Coweta being brought into the Atlanta telephone exchange is something Gay noted as being important for the community. Until that time, someone who lived in Coweta but worked in Atlanta or had a business there would have to call long distance just to call home.
“And it opened up the prospect of businesses all around Atlanta being able to do business more efficiently here in Newnan and Coweta County,” Gay said of a time prior to the Internet and the proliferation of cell phones. “It was a big issue at the time.”
Other important projects of significance to the county include the fairground facility, the Coweta County Justice Center and remodeling of the historic courthouse, Gay said.
Another thing Gay reflected on was the professional growth of county employees.
“When I came to work here we had maybe 200 people overall. Today we have over 850. We went from a partial volunteer fire department to a fully-manned department. And prior to 1974 we really didn’t have a fire department at all. With the help of citizens, we used growth strategies over the years, to bring forth things like a one-percent sales tax and a fire bond to support (areas such as) the sheriff’s office and the fire department. The citizens of Coweta stepped up and said they wanted to pay their way to have improved services,” Gay explained.
Transportation improvements were yet another area that Gay recalled. So many of the roads and bridges built years earlier began to need repair or replacement. Coweta worked with the Ga. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) to use state funds in conjunction with one-percent sales tax revenues to take on the needed projects, said Gay.
“We have a very aggressive road and bridge program that we’ve done since the early 1990s,” he said. “We created the water department in the 1980s and have had water line expansion throughout the county. The county invested in water line expansion to build a customer base while we bought water from Newnan Utilities. It was a good deal for both and it helped us build that customer base before we had to build a water treatment plant.”
Gay may be retiring, but he still has his eye on Coweta County and its future.
“My belief is that Coweta County is poised to see really sustained growth going forward. And that’s not by accident. There was a lot of planning going on to get to this point,” said Gay. “And that includes planning for transportation projects like interchanges (on Interstate 85) and projects that will connect those interchanges to U.S. Highway 29 and Ga. Highway 34. And we went to DOT to get their help with these ideas.”
Perhaps as significant as any interchange project is the one scheduled for Poplar Road. It is one for which the plans were laid by the county 20 years ago.
“Often times I hear people say ‘they are building an interchange because the hospital was coming there.’ That’s backwards. The hospital came there because they knew there is going to be an interchange there. That interchange is a reality. It’s only a matter of time and it will be a game-changer for Coweta County going forward,” Gay said with a smile. “With the hospital and the other (healthcare businesses already located there) it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to mean a lot of investments in the community and a lot of high-paying jobs coming to the community.”
Gay’s thoughts also flowed back in time as he sat in the small conference room in the county office.
“In my time with Coweta County I saw a very rural community with not a lot of things going on and where everything closed down in Wednesday afternoons,” said Gay. “But it’s not that way any more. But when it took off, it really took off. And I don’t think we’ve slowed down in the last 20 years. Even during the (recent economic) slow time we used that time to catch up on things like ordinances that will enhance our community going forward. The thing we wanted to see is not just growth. We could have seen much more of that. What we wanted was quality growth. So a lot of the growth management strategies we talked about has slowed our population growth some, but it had created that quality. And I think that sustainability will make Coweta a special place going forward.”
And as is customary, Gay turned his final thoughts to the people responsible for making government work. Playing down his significance while building up that participation of others is a Theron Gay trademark.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have been a part of a great team. We’ve had great leaders in terms of our commission boards who had the agenda of the community at heart. As did the municipalities and the chamber, all working for the good of Coweta County. It’s been a wonderful experience,” Gay said, smiling again and with the hint of a tear welling up in his eyes. “I hope that I in some way I’ve contributed to that. You don’t have to worry about county staff on a daily basis. They manage themselves, they’re self-motivated. They just go and get the job done. It’s just been wonderful to be a part of that team. It’s been great.”
Outside the conference room there has been no shortage of people wanting to offer praise for the man who made such a difference in the life of Coweta County. Such praise was given last week at Gay’s final meeting of the Coweta County Commission. More accolades followed Tuesday night at the fairgrounds when hundreds attended to say goodbye and pay tribute for four decades of service to the community.
A sampling of the sentiments about Gay and his impact on Coweta County came from Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Candace Boothby, Coweta County Development Authority President Greg Wright and Coweta County Commission Chairman Bob Blackburn.
“If there were an all-time, all-star roster of Georgia's most effective county managers, he would be named to the first team. Theron Gay is a uniquely successful county manager and would have been in any county in Georgia,” said Boothby. “He doesn't care about getting credit for the many contributions he's made. He is a team player and always made sure that the spotlight was on the people he worked for and not himself. Just to have survived for so many years in such a challenging and political position is rare, but to have done such an outstanding job during that time is almost unbelievable. I know this will embarrass him, but much of Coweta's success is to due to his efforts."
Wright characterized Gay as being a calm, effective leader who puts people as ease.
“Coweta County will definitely miss Theron's calm, steady leadership. I have always been impressed with the way he handled difficult situations. When he walked into a room, he immediately put everyone at ease, giving him the unique ability to bring people together to solve difficult problems,” Wright said. “Theron served as administrator during some of the most transformational years in the county's history. He served with great dignity and tremendous humility. Doing what was right and doing what was best for the people of Coweta County were always at the top of his priority list.”
And Blackburn described Gay as a friend who left his mark on the county he loves.
“Theron is leaving an individual and permanent mark on Coweta County that shows in every area,” Blackburn said. “We didn’t get here by chance. It was his skills and love of Coweta that made it happen. He is my dear, close friend and has been a mentor to me as a county commissioner. His unselfish and tireless work for Coweta County for two decades shows now and forever will.”
Gay has not said what he will do now that he is no longer responsible for the operation of Coweta County government. At least now he has plenty of time to consider what the coming days will bring.