By Magnolia Long (LFNC Fellow – Rutherfordton)
During the first week of my fellowship, I had the opportunity to spend one day with each town department just to learn about the basic operations and their goals for service. I did ride-alongs with police officers, explored the brand-new public works building, and indulged in books about historical Rutherfordton at the Norris Public Library. I learned so much my first week here, but the one idea that is reinforced every day is how much this town actually does with so little, but at what cost?
I first noticed this idea when I spent the day with the fire department. The Fire Chief, Brandon Harrill, took me through the basics. Of course, they respond to fire calls and wrecks. But every career firefighter at the R utherfordton Fire Department is also a certified EMT, so they respond to all medical calls. Some are certified in Swift Water Rescue, others are certified in Hazmat Operations. They perform their own fire truck maintenance and mow their own lawn. Their service expands past the normal and traditional fire department duties, which is reflected in their 1,200+ annual call volume.
It doesn’t even stop there. Each department is similarly equipped to handle any situation efficiently. Our public works department handles normal utility and trash duties, but they also maintain our cemeteries and public parks. Our finance director also acts as our human resources department. Our police department performs a decent amount of community outreach, especially helping underprivileged families. The Town of Rutherfordton sets a service standard that is completely unmatched by any other municipality I have ever seen.
One situation that truly exemplifies this idea of efficiency in small town governments was when the tropical storm hit Rutherfordton in October 2020. Our 911 dispatchers answered over 100 calls in a 2-hour period and more than 20,000 Rutherford County residents were without power for multiple days. All volunteer firefighters were called in to handle multiple structure fires, downed powerlines, and vehicle accidents. With the high demand for help, our police, public works department, and our Town Manager went out to help the community. We truly live up to our town motto of “One Town, One Team.”
Being incredibly efficient is perfect for saving taxpayers’ dollars for important projects and quality service, there is a higher degree of burden that the Town continues to face. Over the course of my fellowship, I have seen Rutherfordton excluded from federal grant opportunities based on proximity qualifications that cannot be met in rural communities and struggle with the lack of a skilled work force. This isn’t specific to Rutherfordton. Our Isothermal Housing Task Force, which encompasses a four-county region in Western North Carolina, met in August 2020 and discussed applying for a CDBG opportunity. But because the grant opportunity is unequivocally designed for larger urban areas, it is nearly impossible for rural areas to even qualify. Rural areas, especially Rutherfordton, still deal with blight and housing insecurity, but the burden is simply that we aren’t given the same resources to deal with it.
Instead, rural communities are forced to create innovative solutions to problems, and only some are successful. I am truly lucky that I’m serving Rutherfordton because I’m learning more than just how local government functions. I am learning how to persevere until a solution is found for the greater good. I am learning how to be adaptable and create unique solutions, to be as efficient as the place I now call “home.”