Melissa S. Peacor is the County Executive of Prince William County Virginia. She has worked for Prince William County since 1985 following jobs with the Seattle Wash. Economic Development Office and the City of Glendale Ariz. Strategic Planning Office. Peacor is also currently Chair of COG’s Chief Administrative Officers (CAO) Committee of city and county managers.
Peacor started her career in Prince William with the Planning Office and quickly became the County’s first Strategic Planning Coordinator overseeing the County’s first Future Report 2010 and implementing the County’s first citizen-based strategic planning process. Since then the County has adopted Future Vision 2030 and is currently implementing its fifth Strategic Plan the 2008-2012 Plan.
Peacor became the County’s Budget Director in 1997 and in 1999 she was promoted to Assistant County Executive; that title changed to Deputy County Executive in 2009.
In this Region Forward Q & A Peacor discusses among other topics: regional collaboration transportation as a foundation for family and a regional leader that inspires her.
What got you interested in public service?
Public service was always a big thing in my family. My great grandfather was the first Superintendent of Schools for Cape Cod Massachusetts and my grandfather was on the Civil Defense Board during World War II. My mother was a school teacher and later served more than 20 years as an elected School Board member and my father was the Selectman (akin to Mayor) of our very small town in Connecticut. So I guess you could say it was in my blood. My first goal was to hold office and as a little girl I planned to be either the first female Supreme Court Justice or the first female President. (I know pretty geeky at that age). Anyway although I admire anyone who will put themselves out there and run for elected office I realized that my path lay in government management. I received my Masters in Public Administration from the University of Massachusetts and I thought I wanted to work at the federal level. However my first job was in local government in Seattle WA where I quickly came to realize that the best job was working for local government. At every new employee orientation I tell our employees that we are so lucky to be in public service because we get to come to work every day and see the difference we make in people’s lives. Recently Prince William opened a new road and the Manager of that job was a young employee expecting his first child. We talked about how proud he would be one day to take his new son or daughter and say “Look what Daddy helped build.” It just doesn’t get better than that.
How can the Region’s CAOs benefit from events like the first of its kind CAOs Deputy CAOs and Staff Retreat held this past December?
As you noted we did it a little differently than in the past and invited not just the CAOs but also the Deputies and Assistants. Our goal was to make sure everyone at that level knew each other and worked with each other because in the event of a longer-term emergency they would have to do just that. We had a great speaker who spoke on healthy leadership and I think everyone left with ideas that would improve their job and their lives. There was great discussion and interaction between the group. Hopefully some of the Deputies and Assistants who were there represent the next group of leaders in this region. So it was nice to get to know all of them.
How does Prince William County benefit from regionalism?
In many ways. Prince William County like all the jurisdictions in the National Capital Region benefit from being in such close proximity to our nation’s capital. We enjoy the economic cultural and labor force benefits. However we also must address the issues that come with being part of such a busy thriving region. COG has helped immensely by being a gathering place for ideas analysis and processes that help us address this challenge. Regionalism means that we are better posed to handle emergency situations. We can plan transportation infrastructure together. We have our activity centers that are spread throughout the region so issues such as affordable housing and the environment can be tackled together. Although we all still compete for the next big economic development project business is more likely to come to a thriving region where opportunities exist for their company and their employees.
What brought you to this region?
Actually my husband received a job offer and I came along for the ride. How lucky for me considering the opportunities I have had here in Northern Virginia! I actually applied for jobs in many of the local governments but felt that Prince William offered the best opportunity to make a difference.
What do you think are the region’s biggest challenges?
Well I think most would say that transportation is our biggest issue. Again we benefit from living in a thriving region but we also must be able to get hundreds of thousands of employees back and forth to work. I think we have done a good job of working on this issue together whether it is transit (Metro and VRE) or roads. People tend to think of transportation as an economic development or public safety issue but in many ways it is also a human services issue. Getting moms and dads home quicker to their kids (to watch the soccer game or help with homework) builds stronger kids and stronger families. While good people can disagree on the best way to accomplish this goal I think we would all agree that our transportation infrastructure needs to be improved. Another issue is affordable housing. Prince William is one of the most affordable places in the region to live but it cannot do it alone. There must be affordable housing in all jurisdictions.
What is Prince William County doing that other counties can emulate?
I have to say that the financial management of the Board of County Supervisors is really at the top of the game. Since that is backed up by recognition from the Government Finance Officers Association as well as others I feel comfortable saying that. Prince William has been on the forefront of some very innovative approaches to financial management. For over two decades the Board has had a revenue-sharing agreement with our Schools. It provides stability to the annual budget process and it means that both sides live within their means. The County knows what percentage of the revenue will go to County government and how much will go to the Schools. That is backed up by both entities developing and adopting a balanced Five-Year Budget. That budget plans for operating and capital expenses five years in advance. In budgeting it is so easy to figure out how to afford something for one year; it is much more difficult to ensure that an initiative can be afforded for five years. It means that the Board of County Supervisors never uses one-time money to fund ongoing expenses. It gives confidence to the citizens that the County is providing services it can afford – as defined by the community. It also provides citizens with an idea when projects will be funded like when the next school is coming on or the next park improvement. In fact GFOA said just last year that our Revenue Sharing Agreement and Five-Year Budget process should be adopted by other local governments.
How have your years working in Emergency Management for PWC influenced your work now?
Two ways really. First emergency management is one of those core functions you have to get right. Responding to natural and man-made disasters is always first and foremost a local government responsibility. Second you quickly realize in a region like Northern Virginia that all local governments are in this together. We rely very heavily on each other. Citizens living in Prince William may be working in Arlington when a disaster strikes – as it did on 9/11. Since 9/11 the Northern Virginia area has worked very hard to ensure that we are prepared as a region to respond to these types of incidents. We focus on joint training interoperability policies and MOUs. With the support of COG we have developed a system I believe that really is a “force multiplier”. I know that if there is a disaster in Prince William I can rely on the other governments in the Capital Region to come to our assistance. The new Program Management function at COG will take us to the next level in this work and I am very excited about that.
Who is a past or present DC area leader (elected or non-elected) that inspires you?
That is actually easy for me. John Schofield hired me 28 years ago in Prince William County. As I said I had applied for other jobs in the region – some that offered me more money – but John made me excited about the prospect of working for Prince William. He is such a big-picture person – a real visionary who is also able to make things a reality – things that others would just say are a dream. You can look all over this region and see the impacts of John’s decision to go into public service – one of the biggest of which is the VRE system. John Schofield is one of the “fathers” of that system. He helped bring GMU to Prince William and he helped start our intra-county bus system. He has changed lives and continues to have that impact today.