By Terry Harris
When Melissa Rollins was named Surry County Administrator last month, in addition to managing the daily operation of county government which includes more than 100 employees and an annual budget of $57.7 million, she was faced head-on with unprecedented challenges due to a nationwide pandemic. Last week, she finally had a few minutes to sit down and talk about the current situation in the county, the ongoing things with which she is dealing following stints as Assistant Administrator and Acting Administrator, and her hopes for the future of the county.
“Actually, I came in in the middle of the time that the county is always getting ready for the budget, too,” Rollins said, “so it was a dual challenge. In January and February, there were the budget challenges, and then we started having repercussions from the pandemic in March. Obviously, my experience in budgeting was really good to help the county through that, but when COVID came in, sharing experiences with county leaders and having conversations with other administrators and city managers was also a big help.”
“Support from the Board of Supervisors and my leadership team and employees was critical in getting through that period,” she added. “Still is today. A lot of what it takes is to keep communications ongoing with the staff – trying to give messages of encouragement and positivity – because if everybody stresses out how could we get anything done?”
Rollins said that she is very thankful for the opportunity to serve the citizens of Surry County, and shared that her deep roots in the area are an important part of why this job is so special to her.
“This is the county that I grew up in,” she said. “I grew up off of Runnymeade Road, lived with my grandparents for many years, attended church here, was class Valedictorian for the Class of 1985 in Surry County High School. In fact, I had a lot of teachers and administrators in Surry County who I owe a lot of credit to in terms of molding me into the person I am today. I have always appreciated those teachers who helped me become someone who could give back to the community one day.”
Asked what she feels most prepared her for the job, Rollins said, “I think my experience combined with the knowledge of this community has been one of the key things. In 1995, I became the county’s first finance director. That was a huge step. I was here for a few years before I was promoted to director of finance and information technology – which I was really excited about because I saw a need in the county to advance the county as it pertains to new technology. They wanted somebody to come in and do things in a more advanced way, so that’s what I came in and did.”
Rollins said that a stint as Financial Director for the City of Franklin also helped prepare her for her new position, as did her attending ODU where she earned a master’s degree in Public Administration.
Upon returning to Surry County from Franklin in 2017, she said, “I had already been here, knew the people, and had a foundation here, so the newness of delving into economic development was a very fresh, new, invigorating side of the table that was very different to me. Seeing the opportunities that the county could have was very exciting and rewarding.”
Now that she has achieved the highest job in County Administration, Rollins said that what she sees as the greatest challenge is collaboration.
“I like to think in terms of economic development and things that will enhance the quality of life,” she said. “We are still in the fight for groceries for the community. I do feel that in time we will be able to make that a reality for Surry County – to get rid of the food desert designation. When we think about short and long term goals for the county, there are things that always pop up like economic prosperity for the community, broadband, and we are always looking for business opportunities – things I know we can accomplish if we work together.”
“In other words, we need to be tying initiatives together. Unity in the community,” she said. “We’re all in this together. We have three towns, but I see it as one county. We’ve made strides but I think we can do more. So, what I’m most looking forward to is working with the Board of Supervisors on continuing to build collaborative efforts in the county. Building relationships with the towns of Surry and Dendron and Claremont, for example. To be able to preserve our rural character but at the same time have economic development enhancements. Success stories for the community. Having more citizens engaged as active volunteers. To develop hometown pride so they can feel good about where they live and work. I want people who have left here to come back and see the progress this county has made. That is what I’m looking forward to.”
“And I want to create a renewed platform of information sharing throughout the county,” she added. “Transparency and relationship building through the community. But one message I want to give out is that everyone has to do their part. It’s not all incumbent on the Board of Supervisors, Administration, Employees. Everyone has to do their part to make Surry County – the place they live and work – be what it needs to be. What I know it can be.”
“One of strongest beliefs that has helped me as a leader is the power of optimism,” she added. “I think it stems from gratitude, perseverance, compassion, creativity – especially during the pandemic – and love of your community. I’m very passionate about what I do, and I plan to do my very best to be engaged throughout the community and to seek out those who are equally passionate about creating opportunities and wins for Surry County.”
“I also think a lot of it has to do with my work ethic,” she added, referring back to things that she feels led to her to now being County Administrator. “That’s how I was raised. And you know, even while I was in high school, I worked as a summer intern here in the administrator’s office. In fact, in the Student Government of the Day program, I was elected to be County Administrator of the Day – and that was over 30 years ago. So, I’ve always had an interest in local government.”
“I’m a country girl,” she said. “I used to pick watermelons, pick tomatoes, work in the field. And from that I learned not only a strong work ethic, but also to appreciate nature – which is especially important as Surry is such a great agricultural community. And I learned to respect nature. So, when I saw how the park looked on July 4th, and the area behind the building with the grass not cut, picnic tables looking trashy, I just thought, ‘This just should not be. Somebody needs to clean this up!’ So along with the garden club, we went to the store and got cleaning supplies and cleaned off tables and I borrowed a rake and raked the trash from underneath the table. I just think it’s important to respect our community and the work we have to do. So, if I see trash on the ground, I’m not going to call the maintenance supervisor. I’m going to pick it up myself.”
“I’m also a very optimistic person, she said. “I read books all the time about life being good no matter what the challenges you go through. And I have always enjoyed community service. I like for my work to speak for itself. Just get my work done. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Sometimes you work hard in silence. Let success make the noise.”