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Podcast: Making a Difference as a Public Servant

Podcast with Buster Nicholson, manager of Public Sector Outreach and
Mercury T. Payton, town manager of Vienna, Virginia

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a cascade of new challenges for municipal leaders. In this episode, Buster Nicholson talks to Mercury Payton, the town manager of Vienna, Virginia, about his strategy for long-term capital improvement projects and adjustments made because of the pandemic. Learn what inspired him to become a public servant and why he believes local government leaders must have a “private sector mindset” so they treat residents as customers whom they’re working to deliver the highest level of service.

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Buster Nicholson: Well, welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Buster Nicholson, and the show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing local communities from the perspective of those in local leadership positions. Today my guess is Mercury Payton, town manager for Vienna, Virginia. Mercury, welcome and thank you for joining me.

Mercury Payton: Well, thank you Buster for having me with you.

Buster Nicholson: Absolutely. Just for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve known Merc for some time, I used to work in Virginia as a town administrator and a public works director. I appreciate him coming on and speaking with me about his role in the town of Vienna. And Merc, could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to get into public service and just what road took you there?

Mercury Payton: Sure. Well, getting into public service was something that happened through a number of events. I would say, first of all, growing up with parents who were very much into issues of fairness and equity and just treating people with respect and having opportunities given to all people in society. And so I grew up with an idea or a thought of how I could make a difference in doing that.

And so how I got on this path was through Hampton University. After high school, I went to Hampton and majored in political science, and at that point I wasn’t really sure exactly what I wanted to do. My senior year, I had the opportunity to hear from Clarence Cuffee, who was at the time Deputy City Manager of Chesapeake, Virginia and he talked about local government, and all of the virtues of local government. And it sounded very interesting and sounded like something that I could get involved with and make a difference with a number of people.

So from there, I went to University of Delaware, got my Master’s Degree in Public Administration. And then from there I got my first job in local government in the city of Suffolk, Virginia as a Senior Administrative Analyst in the City Manager’s Office, and worked there for three years and moved on from there to Emporia, Virginia as Assistant City Manager. And then to Manassas Park as Deputy City Manager, and then a City Manager.

And then now, here in Vienna, Virginia been here for nine years as Town Manager. So that’s kind of the path, why I decided to get into public service. Again, just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and be able to do something where I could see the difference that would be made with the work that I would do.

Buster Nicholson: Excellent. And you said it was back in the 80s, your parents, they had a business?

Mercury Payton: Yeah, I know we’ve had a lot of conversations over the years. My parents started a shuttle service out of Prince William County that serviced Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. They found basically a niche where there was a need for service to be provided that didn’t exist at the time.

And both of my parents, their parents, my grandparents were entrepreneurs. And so they both kind of came from a background of healthy risk taking and trying to hang up your own shingle, so to speak. And so this was something that they decided to do. And so I was 10 years old and very young when they started the business, and that’s pretty much my background.

I mean, I grew up in an environment in which you had to work hard and you had to work in a way that would serve the public and serve the military. I mean, a large part of their clientele were Quantico Marines and FBI agents and Drug Enforcement agents. And the other part of their clientele were federal employees from Washington, D.C. So just serving the public and having a high regard for the work that they do and getting them to in front of the airport was something that was instilled in me as a young man.

Buster Nicholson: Sure, and you talked a little bit about development and we’re all a product of our past. And so you’re involved in a private sector world, how would you see that sort of background transitioning into a public sector? Where you have a steady revenue stream from taxes, utility, but bringing that skillset, I think is a bonus to a certain extent to public service.

How does that help you when it comes to budgeting, when it comes to where to develop a budget for operating expenses, revenue, utility rates, and so forth? How does that experience transfer into that public aspect?

Mercury Payton: Well, you’re right it does translate over to the public aspect. And the reason why it does, at least from my perspective, is that when I worked with my parents from 10 years old on up, my parents had my brother and I cleaning the inside of the vans, washing the vans, taking reservations on the phone, answering those calls, dispatching at the airport, collecting money. Doing all sorts of things, everything under the sun that you can imagine that would go into an airport shuttle service, we did those things.

And what it instilled in me was the reality that someone chose to use our service and they didn’t have to choose to use our service. They could have probably driven to the airport if they wanted to, they probably could have called a cab. They could have done any number of things, but they chose to use my parents’ service. And that was because they were able to provide something with a high quality of service and care where customers would come back and then word of mouth, and before we knew it, the business was extremely successful.

And so that translates over to local government. If one has a view of local government that the taxpayer and the patron and the customer, that they’re all bound to use your services. Then the public service are going to take advantage of the resident and the patron and the customer.

If we have the mindset, that’s more of a private sector mindset, that the individual, the resident has chosen to live in your community. They’ve chosen to move to Vienna. They’ve chosen to come to a festival in Vienna and spend money at a festival in Vienna. They’ve chosen to look at things in a museum, whatever it may be.

They have made a decision. They can move from Vienna if they don’t want to be in Vienna, if they feel like their services are poor. And they don’t have to come to a festival in Vienna if they feel like they’ve had a bad experience.

So what it taught me as a young man was that we have to continually provide high quality service in a way in which you would want someone to provide a service to you. If we do that, and if we’re conscientious of that, then people will love where they live. They’ll love being part of Vienna, and then they’ll take ownership of that and they will take a lot of pride in knowing that they are in a community that cares about them.

And then it translates into other things. When we talk about long range budgeting, long range planning. In the private sector, you have to be thinking about not just today, but you have to think about six months down the road, a year down the road.

You have to think about paying employees, you have to think about paying your taxes. You have to be thinking about a multitude of aspects that make a private entity operate and function year in and year out.

And so translating that over to the public sector, I put together here a long-range capital improvement plan that at this point goes to 2036. And when I put that together, there were some who were thinking that was really a long-range capital plan. But at the same time, 9 years in and they’ve gotten used to this idea, and that is if we plan for it, then we can always adjust because there’ll be unforeseen things that will occur.

But at the same time, if we don’t plan, then the things that are really important may not ever get done, because we may say we don’t have the resources or the timing is wrong, or whatever may occur. In the aspect of planning for what we need, what we do is we put it on paper. We plan for it, we adjust if we need to.

If things happen that we can’t control, then we can adjust and put it off a year or two. But when we plan to do something that’s wonderful for the community, what I have found, and my coworkers have found, is that 90% of the time when we plan to do something, it happens because we plan for it in a thoughtful way.

So all of these things intersect with regard to private sector thinking, public sector thinking we’re talking about people, we’re talking about serving people, we’re talking about money and finances and budgeting and strategy. And if more people would think about the resident and patron and customer as someone who’s making a choice in the community.

We would do better as local government servants in treating our residents and customers and patrons extremely well if we think that tomorrow they could leave our community and go to another community, if they don’t receive the best service possible. So I think it absolutely translates to have a private sector background and to be able to integrate that within public service.

Buster Nicholson: Yes, and that’s a very important point because treating the resident as a customer, you’re thinking properly about that. You’re thinking, “I could lose that customer, so I’ve got to be on my game. I’ve got to give the best, I’ve got to be tight on the budget.” And the planning is critical, and I think that a lot of the residents, they have their lives, they’re going to work, coming home and not really focused a whole lot on what town office is actually doing.

So could you delve a little bit further into planning, even if you’re going out to 2036. What are some of the things you’re taking in consideration? I mean, transportation, events and so forth. What is the focus of Vienna right now, if you could pick one or two issues that you’re really lasered in on?

Mercury Payton: We’re a lasered in on a number of things. I would say that, right now that’s front and center is our new police station that we’re beginning to build and construct. And we’ve had a police station here that’s been, I guess, around for maybe 20, 30 years. But immediately when it was built, it was not big enough. And not only that, but it was your old school, traditional police station that didn’t necessarily have serving the community in mind.

So what we have done is, and according to our long range plan, we’ve been planning for this since about 2013 or ’14. We have methodically looked at the needs of our community, and so we have integrated within the plans for this police station a community room where residents would come in and be able to actually utilize part of the police station in a way that is low key and positive.

And so it’s not just a police station that you go to if you get arrested, or if you want to make a complaint. It’s almost going to be a gathering place actually, and we have a plaza space that’s going to be on the outside that also can provide for a gathering space where we have fun runs and those kinds of things. Where people can come to the police station and know it as a positive place to go to.

And if you really think about what’s happening in 2020 with a lot of the things that’s been going on with regard to police officers and citizens of our nation, I think it’s actually been timely that we’ve been able to move forward with our police station planning, knowing that we have a community aspect that’s integrated within that.

So that’s been one thing that I would say that’s a focus. We also always have a focus of improving our water and sewer infrastructure. As you know, a Buster, as a local government leader yourself that along this east coast, all of us are dealing with water and sewer line replacement issues.

Because if you just think about it, the East Coast was probably one of the first ones that kind of got into the water and sewer line business. So that means that you’re going to have those systems began to deteriorate earlier than probably as you go out west. So we’ve been dealing with that and we’ve been planning adequately to address that, and we have a good plan for that.

And then we also have a plan in our long-range planning for serving our parks system. We’ve just built a new community center a couple of years back and it’s been highly used, and well received by the community and those outside of our community. And so we’re also looking at more park space to be able to have gathering spaces for our residents.

So we’re very much into making and keeping Vienna a place where people want to gather, and where they want to have raised their family and have a really good experience. Those are some of the things that we’re looking at as far as our long-range planning.

Buster Nicholson: Yes, and the water and sewer I wanted to touch on that for a minute because that is a huge piece of what a town government does, and is charged with, responsibility for keeping clean water and processing the sewage. But you can’t get grants for that, you’ve got to take out loans and it’s something that a lot of times is easy to put off for a future upgrade because it’s working well now.

But it is something that needs to be continuously folded into capital improvement plan. As far as your current ideas on that, or growth or repair or upgrades, what is the council’s outlook, the mayor’s outlook on the water and sewer, its current state and its future state?

Mercury Payton: Well, our water and sewer system is actually in a favorable position right now. Our water quality is always high and is tested frequently. We know that there are some parts of our system that are older than other parts of our system. And so when we go on to do the waterline replacements and sewer line replacements, we’re replacing the oldest lines in the systems that are in deterioration first. The ones where we have frequent breaks, we attend to those first.

And so, the way that we were able to do this is again, when I referenced the 2036 capital improvement plan, but I didn’t really describe what it is. So to describe what it is, what we do is every year in September the budget committee, which consists of me and the director of finance and the director of public works. And then I have two directors that rotate in each year to make sure that we have various members of our leadership team weighing in on the budget.

So this year we have the planning and zoning director on for the second year of her two-year term. And then we have the economic development manager on for the first year of her two-year term, and they rotate in and out. And we put together the CIP based on all the requests from all the department directors, and then ideas from council members regarding what is necessary for capital projects.

And so as we do that every year, every summer, and then we go to the council in September, and once we go to them in September, then they are able to see what the plan is. Council gives us feedback and adjusting, and then they approve that plan. Now, even though we go every year to the council, every other year is when we go out to bond and borrow the money to pay for the projects. And we pay for the projects out of our meals tax, and out of water and sewer rates.

So when people go to shop in Vienna, so please go shop in Vienna, eat in Vienna. There a lot of businesses and restaurants, go shop in Vienna. Because those dollars, the meals tax that comes out of there goes completely and 100% toward capital projects. The meals tax, they built a community center, those meals tax pay for a road construction projects. Those meals tax are paying for the police station. And so that is how we plan.

And then the water and sewer rates, they pay for the water and sewer lines. And so every other year, we go to the council and go out to bond for the necessary funding, and then we pay off the bond within 15 years, which is very aggressive. Which has helped to get us and maintain a AAA bond rating with the rating agencies.

So it’s important for us to go to the council and express the needs, and then what we have found is that the council had been very receptive to the water sewer rates and us increasing the water and sewer rates every year to meet the needs of the water sewer system.

So I know you asked the question about, what is the council’s response and what they’re thinking about the water sewer system. They know that we have to address the system that we have to continually upgrade it. So that means that every two years we are improving the water and sewer system and we’re going to be doing that for the foreseeable future. And if we do that in a methodical and thoughtful way, then our system will never be in disrepair and we’ll always be able to provide good service to our residents and end users.

Buster Nicholson: And that’s a great position to be in, setting that meals tax aside to address those capital needs on the water and sewer side. That way you have funding every other year to do those projects, because the system needs continuous upgrade.

Mercury Payton: It does, it does. I mean, and it’s something that, people don’t necessarily think too deeply about their water unless there’s a problem. Like they do with most things with local government. And if they’re not coming to town hall, that means it’s normally a good thing.

Unless we’re having a holiday stroll or the mayors having a reception or something like that, which is a good thing. Otherwise, if it’s a quiet day in local government, that means it’s a good day in local government.

So we want to make sure that we’re providing good service, and if people know that their water is safe to drink and they know that they’re paying good money for that, then it makes them feel good about that. And we make presentations to the residents. I know you mentioned earlier about residents sometimes just kind of going about their day and not really thinking too deeply about their local government, but we do have public hearings for our water and sewer rates anytime that we raise the rates. We do have public meetings when we talk about the capital improvement plan.

And then I’ve also started something new this year called On Deck with Mercury, which my leadership team actually, they came up with the name because I’m a big baseball fan. I really didn’t care what they called it, but they said On Deck with Mercury would be fitting.

And basically what we do once a month is, I take a topic and talk with an expert about whatever the topic is for the first hour, and then the second hour open it up to residents who are able to have a back-and-forth dialogue with me and the expert, on that topic or any other topic that residents want to talk about.

And the purpose of that at first was to go out to residents in the community and to be able to be among people. I think the first one was supposed to be at a local coffee shop, no cameras, no mics, just—they  always see me in a suit—so they said, “Mercury, you got to be in a sweater or a polo.” So that was the plan, and then COVID-19 happened.

I think the first one was supposed to be in March. And when COVID-19 happened to our nation, that changed that focus. I think our first one was supposed to be on I-66 repairs. And we quickly changed that from that to having the Fairfax County epidemiologists sit in with me and have a discussion. And it wasn’t in the community, it had to be on-mic recorded for residents to see and hear about that.

So we do go to the residents. I think one of our most recent On Deck with Mercury’s was on the capital improvement plan itself, and we talked about all the projects that we have. We talked about the police station and construction project in another On Deck with Mercury. So residents do have an opportunity to hear what we’re planning on doing and to give feedback to us, and have an open dialogue with me and with subject matter experts about what we’re about to do.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, that sounds great. And it is important to keep those lines of communication open with the public. So I’d like to switch gears a little bit and just talk about more generalities. There are transcendental truths that exist, and one being where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. So tell me a little bit about the things you treasure in life.

Mercury Payton: Well, the things that I treasure in life are, in my estimation, things that are life-giving and things that are good for everyone. And so I think that is important that I remember that I’ve been given the gift of life and I’ve been given many opportunities.

So to think about just what makes me who I am is the fact that I am a man of faith. And so because of my faith and who I believe in, which is personal to me, it forces me and it causes me to constantly look introspectively at myself and to evaluate myself based on my faith.

The tenets of the faith that I’m ascribed to, basically none of us are perfect. And because of that fact, I am able to understand my own shortcomings and failings, and I’m able to cast those failings and shortcomings on the one who takes that on for me.

So I think that because of that, it allows me to deal with life in a way that is free from burdens and free from typical difficulties that can weigh us all down. I mean, this has been a difficult year personally. Actually difficult 18 months for me, my dad passed away on Easter 2019 and my mother has stage four LMS cancer that she’s been battling for two years. And these are things that all of humanity has been dealing with and is dealing with.

There are a number of ways that we can look at those kinds of challenges and difficulties and with my faith, it allows me to express my concerns and my thoughts about the difficulties of life in a way that ultimately points back to giving glory to the one who lived for me and who sustains me. So that is who I am.

So of course, everyone has a different mindset and thought about what helps and energizes them. And that’s what makes our nation, I think, a wonderful place that people can have different vantage points with regard to what encourages them.

But I will say that anyone who knows me knows that I serve a great God and that’s just the reality. And my wife, we have eight children and we live a simple life, as simple as a life can be with 10 people in the home. And my faith is critical to who I am.

Buster Nicholson: You and I have talked before and I know you’re close to your mother. Tell me about how she inspires you.

Mercury Payton: She inspires me in a lot of ways. I mean, she taught me to pray. She taught me to write, she taught me to read. She was a woman who owned her owned business with my dad, my mom and dad together owned a business. She was someone who was hardworking and diligent growing up.

That’s what I saw, saw my mom and dad in the home, she was the one who always encouraged me. This is a small thing, but I remember I’m playing baseball and was having a pretty good year. And she told me that if I could see myself hitting a home run over the fence, I could do it. She said, “You can do it.” She could see ability in me that I didn’t see in myself.

And she would always see that she would always see the ability that was within me, that God had given me, that I didn’t necessarily know that I contained. So every step of the way, every time there was a challenge, she’s been there to pray for me and to pray with me.

And she’s had a hard life, I mean make no mistake about it. To be a black woman who basically grew up in the 50s, there was a lot of transition and change there. And there were a lot of hard times, a lot of difficult experiences that she and my dad both had.

She told me last week that one of the reasons why they moved from Alexandria to Prince William County was because of red lining, and they were not afforded the opportunity to buy the better homes in Alexandria so they moved to Prince William County.

Your parents and your grandparents tell you, and just say, “Yeah, I heard that story before. I heard, I heard it.” The same story over and over, but then every once in a while, they’ll tell you something like, “I didn’t hear that before. I didn’t know about that.”

And that was one of those moments last week, when she was telling me about the red lining, I was like, “I’ve never heard you and dad even mention red lining.” And it’s just one of those things where the experiences that some people have, they don’t have to tell you every experience that they’ve had.

When you see the life they live, in my mom’s case, even to this moment with stage four cancer. To see her faith, to see the hope that she has every day. And then to know that even after this life, she has a hope. I’m inspired by her every single day.

Buster Nicholson: Yes. And it is a great blessing to have a good relationship with your parents, my parents were in just this past weekend and it was just wonderful to see them. And I never take that for granted.

Mercury Payton: Yeah. You have to take each moment that you have. And an example of that is my dad and I, we would get together for lunch once a month. We did it for years. And the last time we had lunch together was two weeks before he died.

And he died suddenly, unexpectedly. Didn’t have any health issues that we knew of that would bring about him dying so quickly. And we had lunch together and we talked about all the things that we normally would talk about and we spent time together. And it was a good time that I had with my dad. Who would have ever thought that two weeks later, that he wouldn’t be with us.

So you’re right. I mean, we have to capture these moments and remember what’s most important. Even in 2020, when we see so much difficulty around us so much to kind of, if we really wanted to, we could focus on a lot of negative, but there’s a lot of good in 2020. And we need to capture that good, and we need to capture those moments in and remember that we’re blessed more than what we realize.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, that’s a great outlook. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to interview you, Merc, is you have a great outlook on life and I appreciate that. Well, we’re just about out of time, but I wanted to wrap it up. And if you could just tell me a little bit about the Vienna Holiday Guide.

Mercury Payton: Yeah, so the Vienna Holiday Guide is something that the Vienna Business Association puts out. And if anyone goes to their website,, you go to that website, it’s the Vienna Business Association website. Then one of the tabs there at the top, it says Vienna Holiday Guide.

And when you go there, you’ll see a number of businesses that we have in Vienna. And those businesses have events or special things that are going on all throughout this holiday season. So I would encourage anyone who’s going to be listening to this, to go to the Vienna Business Association website and take a look at the Vienna Holiday Guide, and certainly come to some of our stores and shop in Vienna.

Particularly in this time, when not only are we in a medical pandemic, we’re in an economic pandemic, you know? In as much as this is an economic pandemic, we need to support local businesses as much as possible.

Buster Nicholson: Yes, absolutely. Well, Merc, thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective on the issues. And I really appreciate you joining me today.

Mercury Payton: Sure, absolutely. I’m just a regular guy and I just appreciate you taking an interest in me and having me with you today.

Buster Nicholson: Absolutely. And thank you to our listeners for joining us, and I hope everyone has a great day.

About the Speakers

Buster Nicholson is a manager of Public Sector Outreach. He has an M.A. in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, analyst for the U.S. Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At AMU, he works with directors and staff in state and local government to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development.

Public Service

Mercury T. Payton was appointed town manager of Vienna, Virginia in May 2011. He previously served as deputy city manager and city manager with Manassas Park and as assistant city manager in Emporia, Virginia. He has a Bachelor’s degree in political science from Hampton University and a Master’s degree in public administration from the University of Delaware. He also has completed the Senior Executive Institute leadership development program at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. Payton currently is second vice president of the Virginia Local Government Management Association, vice president of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System, and chair for the chief administrative officers group with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. He is also a member of the Town Association of Northern Virginia, Virginia Municipal League, and International City/County Management Association.

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