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High Country Council of Governments Present Awards at Annual Banquet

Executive Board Chair and Yancey County Commissioner, Johnny Riddle. (All photos by © Burton Photo 2018)

On September 7, High Country Council of Governments held its annual awards banquet to recognize outstanding achievements and contributions by elected officials, local government employees, and advisory committee members.

High Country Council of Governments (HCCOG) is a planning and development agency serving local governments in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey Counties.

Award winners were selected by elected and appointed officials from the seven-county region.

HCCOG Executive Director, Julie Wiggins, presented the first five awards.

Town of Sparta Council Member John Brady was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) Member by his fellow board members. This award recognizes an individual’s contribution to the region as a whole, and their knowledge of the region’s transportation needs.

Mr. Brady is a founding member of the RTAC with 15 years of service, and served as Chairman from 2014 to 2016. He is a woodworking craftsman and business owner, and consistently makes time to stay involved in the RPO’s work program and projects. Mr. Brady has worked effectively and efficiently with other RTAC board members, NCDOT staff, and has consistently supported the efforts of the High Country RPO to continually enhance and improve the region’s transportation network.

Wilkes County resident Dan Little was selected by fellow board members as this year’s Outstanding Workforce Development Board Member. Mr. Little has been a board member for three years and recently retired from the board, as well as his position as President of the Wilkes Economic Development Commission, where he championed the Work Ready Community initiative leading it to success. During his time on the board, Mr. Little served on the Executive Committee, the Employer Services Committee, as well as the Request for Proposal review committees.

One board member’s nomination stated, “His willingness to serve with the board, while leading Economic Development, helped the High Country Workforce Development Board achieve more success by closely aligning the two entities – a first during my tenure with the board! His ability to share and interpret market information about EDC, and how businesses looking to come to the area make their decisions, was invaluable info for our work in developing long range plans and effective strategies for improving our workforce.”

Avery County resident Ina Winters was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Senior Tar Heel Legislature member. This award honors remarkable service and contributions to the older adults in the region. Ms. Winters has served as the Avery County alternate since 2008. Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, married her sweetheart, and lived in and raised her family in Cleveland, Ohio. She moved to Avery County in 1979.

After Ms. Winters completed her Bachelor of Science degree at Lees-McCrae, she became the center director with the Newland Child Development Center, which was one of the Region D Child Development Centers in operation until 2005. Ms. Winters has stated that serving as a NC Senior Tar Heel has been a great experience, and she’s thankful to be part of this amazing organization that has done so much needed work for the aging population in our state.

Ms. Wiggins presented a special plaque to Avery County resident Rachel Deal for her 25 years of service to the Senior Tar Heel Legislature. As a founding member of the STHL, Ms. Deal has spent many years advocating for senior adults in the legislative process.

Yancey County Manager Nathan Bennett was recognized by the region’s managers/administrators, and local elected officials, as this year’s Outstanding Local Government Manager in the High Country region.

The award acknowledges the contributions a manager has made to local government through his/her professionalism, leadership, and accomplishments as manager or chief administrator.

Bennett is known for having vision tempered with a steady and deliberate leadership style that has resulted in almost a decade of growth and prosperity for the County he serves. When he first started in 2008, the county was in poor fiscal condition: investment in public infrastructure was at a standstill; public services had not been enhanced or expanded for some time; and the Fund Balance was at negative 8%, a full 16% below the fund balance required by state law.

With steady determination, Mr. Bennett outlined an ambitious plan to return the county to financial health, leverage grants and other financial tools and opportunities to jump start infrastructure projects and reinvest in public utilities and capital improvements that would reenergize economic development.

He recommended task forces to explore opportunities for the County to make advancements in areas as diverse as transportation, broadband, agriculture, parks, and cultural resources. As a result of Mr. Bennett’s leadership, the county’s fund balance has grown from -8% to a positive 17.26%, earning an award of distinction for the county’s Finance Staff from the NC State Treasurer’s office.

During his tenure, Mr. Bennett has kept a steadfast focus on the welfare of the citizens of his county, and has worked tirelessly to improve emergency preparedness and response services to improve the quality of services offered to the elderly and aging population. Despite the many large projects he has undertaken in his role as Manager, Mr. Bennett still finds time on a daily basis to maintain an evenhanded approach to all issues that popup day to day, earning him the much deserved respect of his employees and colleagues.

Executive Board Chair and Yancey County Commissioner, Johnny Riddle, presented the next two awards.

Watauga County resident Julie Wiggins was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Staff Member at High Country Council of Governments. This award recognizes an individual’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, contributing to a positive work environment, and promoting a healthy image of the COG in our region.

Ms. Wiggins is consistently enthusiastic and positive in her day-to-day dealings with co-workers and colleagues in our area, across the state, and with our federal agencies and representatives. Staff nominations mentioned it’s a true pleasure knowing and working with her, and that she’s inspirational.

Having been employed with HCCOG for 8 years, Ms. Wiggins was most recently the Director for the Area Agency on Aging, and has an outstanding reputation for advocacy with our older adults. Her leadership capabilities and ability to analyze a situation has resulted in the growth of her department, and now, with her recent promotion, the Executive Board and Staff look forward to the future growth and stability of the COG as we enter a new era of leadership.

Town of Newland Mayor Valerie Jaynes was selected as this year’s Outstanding Local Elected Official in the High Country Region. This award honors outstanding service and leadership to the community.

Ms. Jaynes became mayor in 2005 and has served almost 13 years. During this time, she has served as her town’s representative on the COG Executive Board. She has been involved in several important projects that had positive impacts on her town, including: an upgrade for the Waste Water Treatment Plant; work on the Department of Transportation and Town Streetscape Sidewalk Enhancement Project; and involvement in the development of a new well, water line, and water storage tank to provide potable drinking water and fire protection to the Avery Middle School and Avery High School.

Ms. Jaynes is considered a great asset to the town as well as a friend as she truly cares about the citizens and employees of the town she serves, and is willing to help out in any way. Her father, Bud Calloway, also served as an Alderman in the 80s, and her grandmother, Ruth Calloway, was a long-time philanthropist in the town of Newland and Avery County.

The High Country Council of Governments’ Executive Board chose Larry Fontaine, Mayor of Seven Devils, as their Outstanding Executive Board Member. This award honors service and effort in promoting cooperation among local governments in the region and the state.

Mr. Fontaine is a dedicated public servant whose leadership and vision has benefitted the town with upgraded infrastructure systems, and open communications with neighboring Towns and Counties. He has been a motivating force in creating parks and trail systems throughout the Town.

Mr. Fontaine has served on the Town’s Planning Board from 2008 to 2011, on the Public Works Committee since 2011 to present day, and has served as Mayor since 2011. He has served on the COG Executive Board for 7 years, and is very engaged in his role representing the Town of Seven Devils.

HCCOG would like to congratulate all award recipients and thank them for their dedicated service to High Country citizens.

Dan Little (right)
Ina Winters (right)
Julie Wiggins (right)
Larry Fontaine (right)
Nathan Bennett (left)
Valerie Jaynes (right)
John Brady (left)
Rachel Deal (left)