Second-guessing the commissioners?

The recent decision by Washington County’s commissioners to eliminate their administrator position leaves the county in the minority in Ohio, with 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties maintaining that position.

The county administrator job was eliminated at the Jan. 13 organizational meeting of the Washington County Commissioners when Paul Cunningham was not reappointed to the position, and no one else was appointed. Cunningham was hired four years ago and made $53,349 a year handling daily budgetary issues and clerk responsibilities.

Since his appointment, Cunningham said he had saved the county almost $92,000 per year through changing procedures, including audit costs billed to various departments and eliminating a contract with a company that was reviewing phone bills on a monthly basis.

Commissioners Ron Feathers, president, and David White have said they felt there was a need for the commissioners to become more active in the day-to-day runnings of the office and said duties would be shifted.

The move has been questioned by some, including several former commissioners.

Former Commissioner Steve Weber said he felt the position of administrator was necessary when he was in office.

“With the experience I had, it was a good position and it helped the commissioners a lot,” he said.

Weber said he isn’t trying to second guess the commissioners’ decision and admitted that things change from administration to administration, but said the administrator position is still important because the budget is so large.

“It is a big workload,” he said. “There’s many millions of dollars to straighten out and keep going. It’s a very difficult job.”

When the position was being created, the late Sam Cook, who was a longtime commissioner at the time, said the budgetary process took up about 85 percent of all three of the commissioners’ time.

Weber agreed with Cook’s assessment and said it would probably still hold true for current commissioners.

“It does take a lot of time,” he said. “It takes away the rapport with the public. I liked to get out and see what’s going on; the public’s concerns. It’s definitely a full-time job.”

Former commissioner Cora Marshall, who was assigned the budget duties before Cunningham was hired, asked commissioners to reconsider at their meeting last week.

It’s very challenging for commissioners to fulfill all aspects of their jobs while weighed down with daily number crunching, she said.

“The commissioners have many duties and responsibilities,” Marshall said. “This county that has this (large of a) budget, we need a person in place working with it on a daily basis.”

Budget appropriations for 2014 totaled $61,719,185.61.

Marshall said she has concerns as the commissioners move forward with doling out the administrator’s duties among their office staff.

“We tried an administrator/clerk position when we first appointed the position, but it didn’t work with the workload,” she said. “I said at the meeting (commissioners) are taking a step back in time; we are to learn from our mistakes and our experiences. This is a very important position for the county. Why invent the wheel when this position has worked for so many counties?”

About 56 individuals are performing county administrator duties across the state, said Kenneth Wilson, deputy county administrator for Franklin County. He said they are either members of the County Administrators Association or perform the duties that county administrators are assigned by the Ohio Revised Code.

Wilson said that some larger counties, like Franklin, have both a county administrator and a deputy county administrator, while other counties may have a fiscal manager, like Belmont.

Union County just recently appointed a county administrator.

Commissioner Steve Stolte, vice president, said the main reason for hiring an administrator was growth.

“There are 55,000 people in our county,” Stolte said. “Projected over 25 to 30 years, the population is set to increase by 30,000 people. We’ll see a tremendous amount of growth and we need to be in a position to manage that growth.”

Stolte said in addition to preparation of a population increase, commissioners wanted to be able to get out and have more dealings with the public and establish policy, which there was very little time to do previously.

“We want to be out and about and talk to people, participate on other boards and create a vision for the county and implement that vision,” Stolte said. “Commissioners need to be much more leaders in the community, visionaries to chart the path and establish policy.”

Some other Ohio counties, including Morgan, Noble and Athens, have elected not to have administrators.

Athens County Commissioners take an active role in the everyday tasks around the office, dealing with budget concerns as the need arises, said Commissioner Charlie Adkins.

The commissioners do have an administrative clerk who deals with the budget day-to-day and brings any concerns to the commissioners to go over.

“If there’s anything needed to be done or changed, we take care of it the following week at our meeting,” Adkins said. “I think that we have a good budget and spend a lot of time and effort putting it together.”

Adkins said there aren’t any major issues that have come about from not having an administrator.

“We’ve had some things come up, but they’ve not been a big deal,” he said. “We’ve been able to work through it.”

Washington County Commissioners have said they may hire a clerk but a definite course has not been decided. Commissioner Tim Irvine voiced concern at a meeting about moving forward in eliminating Cunningham’s position without a strategic plan in place.

Cunningham’s last day is expected to be Feb. 14.

He said he felt the commissioners have been very involved with the budget, even as he served as administrator.

“My goal is to give the commissioners the best information available,” Cunningham said. “It’s always been my goal to gather the information (from various departments) and present it to (commissioners) so they can make a decision.”

Several Washington County department heads said this week they didn’t want to offer an opinion on the elimination.

County treasurer Dorothy Peppel said she wasn’t sure how much work the commissioners or the administrator put into budgetary work for Washington County, so she wouldn’t comment on whether the decision to eliminate the administrator position was a good one.

County Auditor Bill McFarland, likewise, wouldn’t comment on the decision, saying it was up to the commissioners to decide what was best for their office.

Sheriff Larry Mincks declined to comment on the elimination, taking a similar position as McFarland.

“They’re running their office and I run mine,” he said. “I’m not going to second guess them. That’s up to them and we’ll see in the long run what happens.”