After the announced departure of Calaveras County Administrative Officer Timothy Lutz, the Board of Supervisors brought on Manuel Lopez to fill the position in the interim of finding a permanent candidate.
Lopez started Dec. 26.
It’s not the first time Lopez has held the interim position, though he admits a lot has changed within the county since he was last in office.
Recently, Lopez took the time to answer questions from Calaveras Enterprise staff regarding the qualifications that candidates should possess and what items, including Butte Fire settlement funds, should be priorities.
What do you see as the top priorities for the county going into 2019?
From a county administrator’s perspective, what I would certainly hope that the board keeps in mind is the need to maintain our fiscal solvency. We’ve been going in the right direction the last two or three years quite well, but the Great Recession of 2008-09 affected not just the budget for that year, but for a long time in many counties. We’re still feeling the effects of that. The Butte Fire is still having an effect not just on the workload but on the finances of the county as well. We want to maintain a positive fiscal direction, and that we transition into the future so that we stay ahead of the problems.
Many of the issues the board undertakes, it takes months to complete them. I’ve been looking at the agenda since September, and many of those issues are still ongoing. Hopefully we’ll bring some of those to a head. Nothing is done overnight, and I want to make sure we don’t fall too far behind.
Some of the things that they’ve been working on involve our new program for legislative advocacy so that we can try to get some federal money infused into some of the projects that we’re going to hopefully be doing, so we certainly want to bring that to a conclusion.
Some of the things that the board has already started, and are progressing really well, are the improvements to the campus. And the reason I think it’s important is that I think happy employees are good employees, and having facilities, tools and equipment that help somebody do their job well are really important. You’ve gotta keep the morale up. I know there were salary adjustments that were done several months ago. Nobody’s ever happy with how much they get, but at least they’ve gotten something. We want to make sure that we have salaries and benefits for our employees so we can recruit good employees that are happy to be working here. The campus improvements are one part of that, so I want to see that continue to go forward.
There is a lot of infrastructure that has been delayed because of all the focus on the fires and the floods, so those things need to start picking up the pace so we can get those things done.
Those are the big issues that I see on the horizon.
If I’m only here two weeks, I’m happy with that, that means we found a great candidate. The sooner the better. It is going to be prioritized to bring in the new county administrator. I’m working very closely with the Human Resources Department in that area, and I don’t know if there’s anybody out there because the time to file for the position hasn’t started yet, but when we do start getting the applications we want to make sure that we find somebody that’s going to serve the county well for as long as that person is here.
In your opinion, how should the settlement funds from the Butte Fire be used?
That will be a policy decision from the board. It’s general-purpose revenue, so they have full discretion over how the money is spent. The entire pool of money will be reviewed sometime this spring, and the board will give us direction at that time.
What are the challenges facing the CAO’s office?
When I was here two years ago, there was one person in this office. Some of our communications systems were not up to par at that time, and I think what’s been done over the last two years since Tim has gotten here, there’s been major improvements in our ability to do our job. It doesn’t mean that the job is easier or different, it just means that now we can do some of these things that we didn’t have record for. For instance, even some of the older budget books that county administrators often rely on to see what’s historically been going on, we’ll look at those old documents and use them as a tool for preparing the budget. Some of that stuff was extremely hard to find, but the office itself, both physically in its ability to work with other departments and exchange information, was significantly improved.
Does that mean there are no more challenges left for the CAO? Not at all. The challenge is going to be using resources that we have to provide service to the communities. In any organization there’s always a greater demand than there is resources. I know our board is very intertwined with the community, and they know what the needs are, and we’ll try to address as many of those needs as we can. But it changes on a daily or weekly basis, the needs. There’s always something new coming up.
The new CAO is going to have a pretty significant challenge once he or she gets here. The sooner somebody gets on board here, the easier the transition will be. I’m just a stop-gap measure. I’ve been trying to suck information from Tim Lutz over the past two days, and it kind of feels like you’re drinking out of a fire hose. I’m going to try to transmit as much of that background information to the new CAO, and even with that information, he or she will have quite a bit to do to catch up. If we pull someone in from out of the area, the learning curve is going to be higher. They may have the basic tools, but knowing the community is a huge part of the job. It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know what it is.
What qualifications should an incoming CAO have, in your opinion?
The new CAO has to learn the community, and certainly has to know the needs and vision of each board member, because we are here to implement their policy direction. I think the new person is going to have to be patient, tolerant, confident, have a good amount of humility, because there are a lot of things that need to be done, and you can’t do everything 100-percent correctly. If we recognize that, maybe that hits on our personal pride, but the fact is being a humble person helps you recognize that. The person really has to be a good leader. There are a million ways to define a leader. I see it as somebody who is able to outline a vision for the subordinate departments. To a certain extent it really is just having that ability to translate what the board is looking for into action, making plans that implement those visions.
How integral is the CAO in the decisions made by the county Board of Supervisors?
Our role is to provide them with the best professional opinion, and argue for them. If we’re recommending something, we have to be confident that it’s right and we have to support it. Once the board decides what the direction will be, the county administrator has to do everything in their power to make that happen. We’re not here to impose our vision, or our wants and desires. It’s really important that the integral part of the CAO is knowing how to do what it is the board member wants to get done. Sometimes even board members don’t know how to get things done, they just have a vision. Somebody has to put legs on that body and get it to the endzone and score the touchdown. You have to know what the board is looking for.
What’s changed since the last time you filled in as interim CAO, and how do you plan to address these changes?
Revenue has taken a really positive growth. To a large extent, emergencies that we’ve had have been reflected in reduced assessments to properties, because if their home burned down or roads went out then their properties are worth less at that time, so it has to be assessed at a lower value. People have been rebuilding. We’re finally starting to see an improvement in the property tax coming to the county. Property tax is the No. 1 source of revenue for local projects. Those positive things can also be a challenge, because we also have to be aware that revenue giveth and revenue taketh away.
I was working in San Joaquin County for several years, and the first three or four years of my term were all high-growth areas. So we started to get comfortable with all the new money coming in every year, but the last five or six years were all downturns in revenues, so some of the things that we wanted to do became virtually impossible to do. That’s also true here. The revenue is going up right now, and I’m extremely hopeful that it continues to go up, but we have to be prudent enough to know that it can go the other direction. Even though things may be going fine right now, we don’t want to find ourselves in the position where we have to start laying people off. Obviously it hurts the person who is laid off the hardest, but it also hurts the community, because that’s less service that we’re able to provide. We have to be ready for those hard times, but we want to be optimistic and look forward to the things that we can do for this community. There are a lot of things I believe that the board will want to see happen so that the quality of living here in this community is improved.