Baldwin County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood admits she was “a little apprehensive” after defeating two-term incumbent Tucker Dorsey in the 2018 primary runoff election with 65 percent of the vote. Having never held elected office, her experience in public service was limited to appointments on the Summerdale and Baldwin County planning commissions.
But the camaraderie since formed with fellow commissioners and the work they’ve accomplished have led her to be more confident in her responsibilities, she said last week, adding the budget process beginning soon will allow the “new” Commission to begin to cement its legacy.
“When I was campaigning, I didn’t think the Commission was in bad shape or anything … I just thought Baldwin County was looking for something new and fresh and I think they got that. After the election, I didn’t know how it would be, but [the other commissioners] respect me and I respect them. We definitely are all bringing something different to the table and I think we bring different strengths to the Commission. I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from employees and from citizens has been, for the most part, positive.”
A certified public accountant who owns the firm Giles, Underwood and Wilson LLC in Summerdale with her sister Norma Giles and nephew John Wilson, Underwood still balances her professional career with her elected position. Meanwhile, her husband, Gary, operates their family business, Underwood Pecan Farm in Foley and Summerdale.
“The hardest thing I’ve encountered is time management,” she said. “We have a lot of requests on us as far as appearances and I think we all get bombarded by highway and road issues.”
Underwood said she’s attended several local and statewide workshops and seminars on topics such as ethics, law, finance and infrastructure, and she is also trying to visit areas of the county she wasn’t too familiar with before. Pointing to a road map in her office, she noted she wasn’t aware of the tiny community of Clear Springs until she veered off Interstate 10 one recent day to travel north on County Road 112.
While communities along the Eastern Shore and Highway 59 corridor have boomed lately, contributing to Baldwin County’s state-leading 20 percent population growth since 2010, vast parcels north of Interstate 10 remain largely undeveloped, Underwood noted. But in spite of that, she said, the growth is concerning.
“It’s not that I’m not discounting the growth. Because probably every situation or issue that comes up right now is associated with growth. Whether it’s planning and zoning, our environment, schools … all those things,” she said. “It’s important to emphasize with the 2020 census coming up, we’ve got to be committed to making sure that we get a good turnout — that is vital. They stress that it’s a possibility that we could lose a representative in Washington.”
With her experience in accounting, Underwood was appointed to chair the Commission’s finance committee. But she said the new Commission made relatively few amendments to the $181 million budget approved by the previous Commission. It did cut unprofitable routes offered by the Baldwin Regional Area Transit System (BRATS) and earlier this year, terminated the contract of the county’s clerk/treasurer, a position the Commission is currently redefining.
“We were trying to narrow down the position. We have changed the position; the previous clerk/treasurer had a lot of duties. It might have even been more than what one person needed to have in that capacity.” Underwood explained. “Previously the treasurer was over the accounting and finance department and that also encompasses payroll and accounts payable. And they’re basically the keeper of the checkbook. So the position also was over our sales- and use-tax department and was the license inspector.”
Since, Underwood said Budget Director Ron Cink has moved his office from Bay Minette to the county’s central annex in Robertsdale, where he is now responsible for sales and use taxes. Cink also relinquished his dual role as county administrator, a position filled in March by former Fairhope Planning Director Wayne Dyess. On Tuesday, the Commission voted to send a resolution defining the new role of clerk/treasurer back to a work session, to clarify duties that were undefined.
“We are hoping to fill that position, although it will be more of a what I term a senior accountant position,” she said. “I think it will focus more on just the finance part of the county.”
Aside from administrative details, Underwood said a good portion of her attention is focused on roads, bridges and garbage collection.
“Right now we have around 2016 AFMs, which are requests by citizens to ‘accept for maintenance’ certain private roads,” she said. “And so those are a lot of the requests that we get and people don’t understand that there’s not some big pot of money that we have that we can just pave every road in Baldwin County. If I had $200 million, I’d pave every road in Baldwin County tomorrow. But the highway department has a hierarchy of roads that are ready, roads that they basically have done all the research on as far as need, so politics don’t get involved.”
Underwood also noted the county’s recent effort to modernize internal computer software and networks. On Tuesday, the Commission approved a contract worth more than $1.2 million for Tyler Technologies’ software, an IT solution recently implemented by the city of Mobile.
“When I came I thought the computer program was a little cumbersome. I was kind of taken aback because it was all spreadsheet format and I think the younger generation, we’re kind of used to looking at things in a different format — like a dashboard,” she said. “So there were some inquiries started before I got elected looking at a new program geared strictly for governmental entities. I come from a world where I’m not even remotely used to spending that kind of money on software, but it’s a massive undertaking to do this and I’m really excited about it. I think they said it would probably take about 18 months to get it implemented throughout all the departments in the county.”
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