HANOVER — Under different circumstances, Hanover County Administrator Rhu Harris and his wife would be spending their first leg of retirement at a tiny village in Belgium called Bruges, prepping for a trek to Amsterdam to enjoy the world famous tulips in full bloom.
“I should be somewhere in Belgium right now,” Harris said with a smile last week.
It was a trip planned months in advance to celebrate Harris’ decision to retire after 36 years of public service, the last 16 as county administrator.
All of those plans changed quickly.
News of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent closures quickly put the barge/bike vacation on hold, and Harris vowed to stay on past his announced departure date to guide the county through unknown waters.
“I knew the county could use an extra set of hands, and John (Budesky) wasn’t coming on board until July 1, so there was no reason to leave these guys shorthanded for that amount of time,” Harris said.
He didn’t realize at that time that, in terms of challenges, Hanover County has saved the best for last.
“The last 90 days have been challenging,” Harris said. “I certainly didn’t expect to coast out of the door, but I did not anticipate such a unique and fluid situation like the one we face now.”
Staring down the barrel at the thought of leaving a place that has become home for Harris, the reality of departing hasn’t escaped the youthful looking 62-year-old.
“These folks have become my family, so I know it will be tough to not be here around them every day,” Harris said, referring to the administration and staff. “I don’t plan on being a stranger and maybe the extra time will allow me to spend time with them.”
Harris planned a May departure date, but extended to address pressing needs of the county due to the coronavirus, including a shutdown of most county facilities with the majority of county employees working from home.
“I announced my retirement in November, expecting to depart in mid-May,” Harris said. “I had intended to get the budget adopted, the BOS [Board of Supervisors] initiatives approved and get our major construction projects of the former District Court Building and the Atlee Library ready for opening before I handed off the job to the new county administrator.”
Harris said he is in constant communication with incoming county administrator John Budesky. “His being here three years ago is an advantage because he is familiar with our policies and how we do things,” Harris said.
It seemed like a plan that was coming together until the crisis hit.
“In addition to all of those other projects, I got the opportunity to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected all of our daily lives,” Harris said. “We had to close our doors to protect our employees all the while finding ways to continue to serve the public.”
Admittedly, this is not Harris’ first rodeo when it comes to emergencies, and he’s dealt with his share of disasters.
“Not that you ever get used to having hurricanes, but debris cleanup and things that come with that type of disaster are a little more aligned with your everyday functions,” he said. “This has been so different from our everyday work.”
The county administrator had the foresight, which he attributed to luck, to test the county’s ability to telework one week before the first closure. Employees with laptops were sent home to gauge just how effective the remote working environment would be.
“We found out some very interesting things that helped us the next two weeks on how to increase the percentage of employees working from home,” he said.
While Harris acknowledged the last 90 days have been some of the most challenging of his career, he’s proud of the results.
“With the use of technology, we have successfully maintained high levels of service, created policies and procedures to deal with new federal and state laws from wearing masks to social distancing.”
The work in areas like technology continues, and Harris said the recent crisis has placed a new emphasis on needed upgrades, especially in the school system.
Later this month, he will recommend allotting $6 million to technology needs in the county with the main emphasis on schools.
Hanover County received $9 million in CARES Act funds that must be spent by Dec. 31. With the full implementation of a program supplying laptops to all Hanover students still more than a year away, Harris recommends using some of those funds to move that program up and provide devices for students from third grade up as soon as possible.
“We’re going to spend over $6 million in technology as a result of that $9 million … and a lot of that is going to the schools,” Harris said. “Our school system does not have computers in the hands of high schoolers and we are going to use some of this money to do that. We’re even going to go all the way down to the third grade with tablets or computers.”
Harris said he would like to “button up” those plans before he leaves this month, but final approval requires a public hearing.
When Harris arrived in Hanover in 1984 there was little to indicate that he’d spend most of his career working there. Following his graduation from the University of Richmond, Harris worked as a CPA (certified public accountant) in the private sector for five years before arriving at the courthouse to accept the assistant financial director position.
“I had done governmental audits so government wasn’t foreign to me,” Harris said. “I knew a little bit but didn’t understand and appreciate quite all of the rules and regulations.”
Under Richard Johnson’s tutelage, Harris progressed and mastered the intricacies of government service. Some of his early assignments were less than ceremonious.
He explained a state law passed in 1984 that required localities to audit bingo games was the catalyst for initial hire.
“One of my first tasks was to audit bingo games throughout Hanover County,” Harris joked. “I audited those games for two years and then hired Joe Casey (current Chesterfield County administrator) and then he took over that assignment.”
Casey remembers his first encounter with Harris and the long relationship that followed this way.
“Hard to imagine 33 years ago I was the outside auditor meeting a young finance director for the first time,” Casey said. “The rest is not just history, but the future.”
Casey noted Harris’ influence in the public arena but also his impact on his colleagues and their careers.
“He’s shaped so much in policies, people and public service that will have a lasting impact,” Casey said.
“I simply wouldn’t have pivoted from a CPA career to local government if it weren’t for him. Then I got to have a front row seat to his career, and enjoyed riding his coattails along the way. More importantly, I have also enjoyed a lasting friendship.”
Harris spent about 10 years in the finance department with expanding duties, and then spent another decade as a deputy county administrator followed by 16 years as county administrator.
Throughout those years, Harris formed invaluable regional friendships that allowed the county to participate and benefit from regional partnerships.
“I have been very fortunate over my career to have enjoyed true friendships with many people,” Harris said. That list includes local leaders like the two Jack Berrys, Stewart Roberson, Richard Johnson, Stewart Cook, John Vithoulkas, Joe Casey, Dave Hines, Lane Ramsey and Virgil Hazlet; and also includes Jamelle Wilson, Michael Gill, Jay Stegmaier Sterling Rives and many others.
“It’s almost like a family. We really look out for each other.”
What resulted is Hanover County becoming an integral player in metro Richmond planning and development that includes memberships on a number of regional boards and commissions.
“Our relationship with Richmond tourism and Jack Berry has been incredible,” Harris said. “We have enjoyed strong support as well from the Greater Richmond Partnerships and Capital Region Airport for many years. These organizations as well as many more are truly important for our Central Virginia community of which Hanover is a significant portion of,” he added.
Harris said those partnerships, coupled with a supportive community, have accounted for numerous successes during his tenure, a development he readily credits to the people who surround and support him.
For example, deputy county administrators Jim Taylor, Frank Harksen and Kathleen Seay were hired by Harris and have spent decades at his administrative side.
Those successes were tempered by a number of challenges that arose as the county grew by leaps and bounds during Harris’ tenure.
“Had I not been so busy in the last weeks, I was going to go back and count the number of local disasters I have declared from hurricanes and flooding to our most recent pandemic,” Harris said. “We have worked hard to improve our core services of public safety, schools and human services. I am very proud of the accomplishments in all of these areas as well as so many others, but, above all, I am proud of the people we have hired.”
Harris said he had a personal hand in hiring many of those positions, and feels a personal connection to many of his co-workers.
“We have an incredible staff in Hanover,” he said. “From the front level customer service providers all the way to management, we are so very fortunate. Issues will come and go, but the great community that Hanover is will always find ways to improve itself.”
Harris is more than confident in his successor’s ability to hit the ground running and guide Hanover through its next era of success.
He noted the county’s AAA bond rating and lowest real estate tax of any large locality in Central Virginia, but acknowledged there will be challenges.
“Like any great sports team, maintaining that excellence will be a challenge,” Harris said. “We are looking at the need to replace or renovate a number of our older schools and that will be costly.”
One problem that has perplexed local leaders for years is the lack of road funding for local projects, but recent action by the General Assembly could alleviate some of those concerns.”
“With the addition of the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, Hanover will have new funding to help address our transportation needs and I think you will see a real difference in meeting these needs in the next five years,” he said.
It’s estimated that fund could provide $9 million in a dedicated stream of revenue for road improvements in Hanover, projects that local leaders will designate and oversee.
Maintaining a high level of service for its residents, in Harris’ estimation, includes economic development.
“The only way we can maintain both our quality of life and low taxes is by investing in economic development,” Harris said. “We have had great success recently, but we must continue the effort if we want to keep both the quality of life and low taxes.”
A lot has changed since Harris arrived in Hanover more than three decades ago, but he likes to consider the things that have remained the same: the people.
“It is and has always been about the people and that’s what I’ll miss the most,” Harris said. “I know I’ll miss the daily interaction with so many of those people. These people are part of my life.”
With no plans for future employment, he’s looking forward to some time off.
“I don’t have any specific plans right now other than enjoying time with my family, especially my three grandkids, and to hopefully travel a little.”
And that canceled trip to Belgium is on again complete with bicycles, barges and tulips.
“Bruges is scheduled for next year — same time, same place!”