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Get to know Rhu Harris, longtime Hanover County administrator
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Get to know Rhu Harris, longtime Hanover County administrator

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Pandemic, protest and the 2020 RTD People of the Year

Bond ratings aren't sexy conversation material. Land-use plans and five-year budgets are exciting only if it's your land and your money.

Except that a triple-A bond rating – which Hanover County earned under the guidance of County Administrator Rhu Harris – equates to buying power. That means new schools, improved infrastructure, expanded technology and ... well, string those together, coupled with a moderate tax rate and balanced growth, and the Hanover lifestyle looks quite appealing to many. 

"It does show strong financial management," Harris said, "and the quality of Hanover County."

In June 2020, Harris retired after 16 years as the county's top official and more than 30 with Hanover government. His career started in 1984 as an accountant auditing school cafeteria funds and even bingo receipts – and it ended with him overseeing an annual county budget that neared half a billion dollars.

It was a long way from the Goochland County farm he grew up on, and getting there wasn't without bumps – and even large potholes – in the road.

Harris was four years into his role as administrator when the Great Recession took hold in 2008. He said full recovery from the bottoming out of real estate taxes – the primary source of county revenue – took about eight years. 

But Hanover managed to rise from a single-A bond rating to triple-A. Ratings are the basis on which lenders give money to the county, so the better the bond rating, the lower the cost of borrowing.

"I didn't need to do a sales job," Harris said, noting that he could show rating agencies that his five-year financial models had set up Hanover to weather the storm.

"We are going to be fine and we can adjust to the new normal," he remembers telling them. "We will make sure Hanover County ... is in a position to pay all of its debts, pay all of its bills."

And without a single layoff, Harris said proudly.

Faye Prichard, a member of the county Board of Supervisors and a former Ashland mayor, said Harris was one of the first people she knew when she began working in local government decades ago.

"No keener mind than Rhu Harris," she said.

Prichard noted that Harris helped build a strong relationship between the county and the town. "We didn't always get what we wanted, but we trusted him to bring us to the table," she said.

Hanover continues to walk a fine line in terms of growth. Harris said he looked to maintain the county's rural nature while accommodating higher-density suburban sprawl as the region expanded. He also kept a measured watch over commercial growth. The result is a residential and commercial tax base that keeps Hanover taxes among the lowest in the region.

"We didn't want to lose the rural character, but we saw the success that [other counties] were having with economic development," he said, citing Chesterfield and Henrico counties.

Harris has strong ties to both localities, and regional cooperation has been part of his leadership commitment.

Chesterfield County Manager Joseph Casey was Harris' assistant director in Hanover's finance department in the 1990s – Casey's wife "jokingly called us Batman and Robin during my Hanover days," Casey recalled in a recent column about Harris in The Times-Dispatch. He credits Harris for leading him to a career in local government.

In the same column, Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said Harris' "honest approach and heart" led to key regional successes – including the recent Central Virginia Transportation Authority, which "could not have happened without him."

Harris is quick to say that his accomplishments are neither flashy nor grandiose – "I get credit for it more than I should," he said of the bond rating – and colleagues say the humility matches his personality as a commanding but poised servant-leader.

"He's always the accountant," Prichard said, "but he's also thinking about people."

***

IN HIS WORDS: RHU HARRIS

retired Hanover County administrator

Hometown: Goochland County

Family: wife Peggy, two children, three grandchildren

***

What is something about you that might surprise others?

I enjoy vacations in which my wife and I travel by bicycle. Bike travel lets us go 30 to 40 miles a day, but we can stop and enjoy the local culture and sights at a moment's notice. I remember one such trip in which we rounded a curve to not only see but smell an incredible field of flowers in Spain.

My daughter has an interest in biking, and we were planning a trip with her and her fiancé – from Bruges in Belgium to Amsterdam in the Netherlands in May of this year. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and we have postponed the trip until next year.

Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you.

A friend who enjoyed traveling and biking convinced me to join him on my first bike trip, and we both convinced our wives to join in. We signed up for a self-guided trip, as none of us wanted to be herded around by a tour guide. We ventured to the Rioja region in Spain, which is quite hilly. We biked and hiked (and pushed the bikes over several mountains).

We enjoyed the adventure, and we were planning another trip when my friend came down with cancer. He passed away shortly thereafter. This moment made me appreciate that I should not put off for retirement the things I can enjoy today.

Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.

When the county administrator job in Hanover came available, I was asked to serve as interim while a search commenced for the permanent replacement.

I worked in county government at the time, and I was encouraged by many colleagues to apply. I was not sure the job would be the best fit for me, but I did apply – and was not selected. I was the second choice.

Discussions with the No. 1 candidate didn’t work out, and I was asked to continue as interim, knowing that I had been passed by for the job. Six months later, in late 2004, I was offered the job and served for 16 years.

By continuing to serve my community and support Hanover employees, my talents came through much better than my ability to promote myself in an interview.

If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?

I enjoy reading history, so I think a day with Benjamin Franklin would be enjoyable. His insights into our country’s founding, along with his humor, would be something I would enjoy.

Franklin had an integral part in establishing our representative democracy. As a person who worked in local government, I would be greatly interested in a conversation with him about the different perspectives the Founding Fathers had – and the compromises that were made to establish our form of government.

Who is your role model?

My father's strong values, commitment to family, service to community and work ethic are why he is my role model.

He grew up with a strong family but modest means. He worked on the family farm and grew tobacco to earn money to buy his first bicycle. He was successful in sports – he even played semi-professional baseball. He served our country as an Army paratrooper during the Korean War.

While working for a fuel oil and gas station business in Goochland, he and a partner were able to buy it and run the business successfully until his retirement. He served his community in many ways, most notably as a member of the Goochland Board of Supervisors for eight years.

Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value.

Like my father, I played baseball for Goochland High School. I have a few of his baseball items. A special one is a picture of his high school team, which includes his brother and so many of my lifelong friends. I grew up knowing most of the players in the photo. Most of them had children, and we all grew up together.

My father's coach was still teaching when I attended high school, and he would occasionally share baseball stories and the instruction he taught my father and many others.

If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?

Bike guide in Europe. The speed of cycling is part of the connection with your destination. You can see many sites, such as castles and fields of flowers, from miles away and then ride to experience them close up. As a guide, I could share the history of each region, get exercise and meet new people and hear their experiences.

Cycling is a great way to meet locals. We usually have to stop and ask for directions, as our maps usually leave many questions about how to get to our destination. We ask about great places to eat (which many times are a local store, not a restaurant) and about other local activities.

The cyclists we've met have been friendly and curious, and we discussed many local and worldwide issues at dinner when we came together. It's remarkably interesting when people from around the world ask about the United States or our health care programs.

Share a personal reflection on how the pandemic has affected you.

My mother's health had not been good this year, and in early April, she had to move from her independent living apartment to her community's health care center. The retirement/nursing facility stopped allowing visitors to limit the possible spread of the virus.

We weren't able to visit my mother for the first months of the pandemic. It wasn't till mid-July that I was able to see her – once every 10 days, outside, in a special area supervised by a staff member.

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