This week, Matt Calabria was sworn in as the new chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The 37-year-old attorney has served for two terms on the board, however, because the General Assembly voted to shorten term lengths from four to two years during his first term, this will actually be his seventh year on the board.
So what does Calabria want to do differently now that he’s at the helm?
We wanted to know. So we gave him a call.
INDY: What is your top priority as chair heading into his new term?
Calabria: The number one thing I want to focus on in the coming year is this idea of equitable prosperity. I’ve already told each of my colleagues that is what I hope to be a theme for the year. When I say equitable prosperity, I am relating to terms like economic justice or prosperity for all.
One of the things that we saw right before the pandemic, for example, was that Wake County was essentially at full employment and yet we had more than 120,000 [residents] living in poverty. Well, how do we reconcile those things? I think the short of it is we have a lot of jobs—although we continue to need to focus on creating more jobs and traditional economic development—but we need to make sure, first, that we have good-paying jobs and second, that we have all the of the other social supports we need to give people the opportunity to succeed.
I think the board has done a great job in recent years focusing on education, affordable housing, transit, and other issues. The lens that I think is going to be an important component this year is economic equity. That would potentially include worker training, seeing what we can do to help people have access to affordable child care, making sure that we recognize businesses that are paying a living wage, and incentivizing good business behaviors.
We’ve done a little bit of that so far—I had sponsored an effort a year or two ago to incentivize businesses for creating living-wage jobs in underprivileged areas. That has done well and we’ve had some businesses take us up on that.
That’s not exclusive of all the other things we have to work on but I think it’s an area we have not paid as much attention to. There was a study a few years ago suggesting both the Charlotte area and the Raleigh area were among major cities in the country not doing well in terms of economic mobility, so I want to zero in on that issue and make sure we are doing all we can to improve.
INDY: What do you think was the board’s biggest accomplishment last year?
Calabria: Looking back, I think we did a lot of consequential things, but to me, the stand out is what we were able to accomplish on affordable housing. If you compare 2020 to 2017, we have generated nearly 10 times the units and we did it at nearly half the cost per unit.
We have been working really hard to execute strategies on affordable housing. We did it by also looking upstream and trying to find ways to prevent people from being housing insecure. So not only did we put a record number of units in play but we also did things like eviction prevention, eviction mediation services, and also relocation assistance. We also worked to expand our supportive housing operations as well.
I think if you asked a person on the street what they thought the major issues of the day were, right now COVID-19 would be on the top of the list, but affordable housing ranks high no matter who you are talking to. No one has been able to point me to a city in the county that has totally solved its affordable housing challenges, but I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of headway.
INDY: What do you expect will be the board’s biggest challenges in 2021?
Calabria: I think our biggest challenge will continue to be our response to COVID-19. The pandemic has required us to maintain a very significant public health effort.
The pandemic has done a couple of things internally to the county government. One: we’ve realigned a lot of our operations to respond to the pandemic. We’ve even retrained librarians and others to be deputized as contact tracers and fill other roles, so it has really been an all-hands-on-deck scenario.
In addition to that, the pandemic has rightly been a focus of our financial resources and that has obviously diminished resources that we might have been able to use for other areas. The pandemic has decreased our overall revenues particularly when it comes to sales tax, so we’re sort of between a rock and a hard place in some sense, but I’m proud of the work that Wake County did. Compared to some other places, when you look at our infection rates and our fatality rate, we’re doing much better.
We’re not out of the woods yet and we can’t take our foot off the gas in terms of our public health effort, but I think we’ve done a good job on the public health side as well as trying to support folks economically.
INDY: Assuming the pandemic is with us at least until the summer, what will the board do to help uplift businesses and workers affected by the public health crisis?
Calabria: Some of our ability to respond will be determined by the kind of support we get from the state and federal government. We received nearly $200 million in COVID-19 relief and much of that went to fund our public health effort, but we also did things like expand affordable housing and set up hotels for people to stay in because congregate shelter models—you can’t use congregate shelter models when you have a pandemic.
But we also did things like fund a Wake Forward program which provides low-interest loans to small businesses and we had a particular emphasis on small businesses and sole proprietorship. I was very proud of that effort. I hope we can continue a program like that to provide assistance, but that will take support from the state and federal governments.
I just signed a letter yesterday to Congressional leaders and our Congressional delegation encouraging them to pass COVID-19 relief that is timely, robust, and affords counties some discretion as to how to use the funds so we can use the funds in a way that meets our needs on the ground. I hope to be able to provide additional small business loans and support for small businesses.
The other thing I would emphasize here is supporting workers. We know a lot of businesses are struggling and may not be able to keep their workers going full-steam as they did before, and we’ve seen that in the restaurant industry. But what can we do to support those workers so they don’t have to move elsewhere? That’s where robust housing comes in and making sure we have strong worker training and support programs.
And the last thing I’ll mention is just making sure that public health regulations or any regulations the state may be brought down are very clear so businesses know what they can do and what may be disallowed during the pandemic.
INDY: Balancing education funding and the rest of the county’s needs is always a hurdle for the board. Do you think the board will be able to meet its needs without a tax increase next year? How do you plan to accomplish that?
Calabria: I’m very hopeful. Ultimately, those decisions will be influenced largely by two variables. The first is what the school system identifies as its needs. They are still in the early stages of putting together their annual budget and we will know in three, four months’ time what they see as their needs for the coming years.
The second factor will be how well the economy rebounds as we come out of the pandemic. We’ve seen a hit to sales tax and other revenues, so we are going to be working to match our needs with our ability to pay.
I think it’s very clear that all members of the board are very supportive of public education and want to meet the felt needs that they have. Unfortunately, I think the answer is that it’s too early to tell, but I do think that we will continue to do everything we can to free up funds to help the public education system. We have in the past and obviously they have some real challenges, especially during the pandemic.
INDY: What’s something most people don’t know about you or would be surprised to learn?
Calabria: Over the past couple of years I’ve actually gotten into woodworking. My dad was always very handy and I come from a long line of carpenters and contractors. I inherited some of his tools and started tinkering around.
I don’t get to do much woodworking in a given week just because of other time demands, but I end up going out there late at night and find it’s a very meditative activity. I build boxes or I built the desk I am sitting at right now. I can go out and think about the day and work with my hands a bit. That’s something where I go and do it and turn everything else off.
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