Throwback Thursday: I almost didn’t survive my first county budget

A memory from my first year as a reporter way back in 1983, first recounted in 2015.

I walked into Numa Baker’s office on some random day in June of 1983. By any standard it was an immaculate setting. By news reporter standards his desk was clean enough for open heart surgery to be conducted.

“Where am I?” was the question that jumped to mind.

I was in the office of the then-county manager in Rockingham County. It was part of my first full-time reporting job at the Reidsville Review. I was 22 years old, nearly a year removed from college and getting a steady paycheck for a little more than a month. Needless to say, I was sopping wet behind the ears.

In my hands I had a leather folder with a legal pad contained inside. I also had a copy of a document that at the time I thought was responsible for the deaths of more trees than Paul Bunyan. Turns out, it was just the county’s proposed budget. I would soon learn that it paled in comparison to the size of  other government-produced paperwork. Much later in my career I would be confronted with a massive notebook containing the Environmental Impact Study for Cherry Point Air Station. It weighed in at a little under three pounds.

At that moment, this Rockingham County budget was the most perplexing thing I had ever seen. It was my first encounter with a local government spending plan of any description. Suffice it to say, it’s not the kind of thing you see on most college campuses. As a student I remained blissfully unaware about the nuts and bolts of how government operates. I only vaguely understood that government paid for certain services and that taxes somehow made this possible. The only thing I knew for sure about taxes is that they induced tons of expletives from my dad.

Taxes and government, however, were pretty far from my mind in those months just after graduating from college. My plans back then involved covering sports for a living. I figured if I understood earned run averages, field goal percentages and the balk rule then I could probably do just fine. Current expense? Capital outlay? Phew, no clue.

But life doesn’t usually work out how we plan. I would almost insert never instead of usually except in journalism we’re taught to avoid writing in absolutes. Let’s just say life seldom plays out as visualized in our dreams. In fact, if asked to offer advice to students preparing to leave school I would say: “Venture out into the world without a roadmap. You’re going to wind up who knows where anyway, just make sure it’s not in a ditch near Back Swamp.”

And so it was on this random June day in 1982 that I found myself in Wentworth before Numa Baker, the county manager of Rockingham County. I never expected to be there in a million years.

I was at his mercy.

NUMA BAKER was an amiable sort. That was my good fortune. I would also learn later that local government managers aren’t all so accommodating to woebegone reporters posting consistently stupid questions. Hard to blame them I suppose. Then again, it’s in a manager’s interest for the news to be reported accurately. A good manager would want to help any reporter writing a story about his town or county.

Numa-BakerI think that’s where Numa Baker fell.

After I was handed the county budget, I took it back to the office. The jargon was thicker than sludge. It may as well have been written in Sanskrit on papyrus for all I could tell. To someone for whom balancing a checkbook equated to advanced trigonometry it seemed practically impossible to write any kind of story at all.

I couldn’t even figure out how to begin.

“Go talk to the county manager,” my editor Jerry Moore advised.

And so I did.

After making an appointment, I walked into Numa Baker’s office. He seemed to be 50-something and was turned toward a window to his right as I entered. I was nervous. He probably knew it. I took a seat after he motioned me to do so.

“Mr. Baker . . . “ I began, then hesitated. “I don’t understand . . . I mean, I have no idea what any of this means. Can you help me out?”

I threw myself on the mercy of the court.

In response, the court offered leniency. Mr. Baker proceeded to explain in language even I could understand what “capital outlay” is or what to look for under “current expense.” It was a tutorial on how a budget works that I’ve appreciated every day since.

Mr. Baker, who passed away in June of 2011 at age 86, was among my favorite local government managers of all time and I’ve worked with some very good ones. The truth is, young reporters can be made or shattered by a government manager. I’ve also seen more than my share of awful ones.

So you learn to really, really appreciate the good ones.

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