After a year in Crow Wing County, Tim Houle has developed a front-line view of the challenges ahead.
Houle took over the county administrator's job in July of 2008.
Clearly the change in the economy tops the list of transitions. When Houle left Morrison County, the economic picture had yet to take the plunge it began that September when as Houle put it - everything "went to heck in a row boat."
Coming into the organization, one of the first things Houle was faced with was laying off staff. Not the best way to endear yourself to an organization or a community, he said.
"So we've spent a lot of time talking openly about the challenges we are facing," Houle said, noting meetings with employees.
Tim Houle, Crow Wing County administrator, has been in his job in Brainerd for about a year.
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Natural forces of inertia, status quo and doing something the way it's always been done met with the hurricane force of the economic meltdown.
"We've had a crisis and so we have tried to seize on the opportunity of the crisis, the suspension of those forces of the status quo," Houle said.
The pace of organizational change this year is faster than any other year of his 15-year career, Houle said. He pointed to county department reorganizations in Community Services and Land Services.
"That's been exciting, challenging, stimulating and hard," Houle said. "Everybody wants meaningful work. I've had a really meaningful job for the last year. It's been a great fit professionally. It's a great organization. ... It was a good change for me personally."
Looking ahead, Houle said the county faced a difficult planning year for 2010, but it may have been the easiest budget to put together because of previous work and quick response to the 2009 state budget cuts.
Houle said he was confident, despite the lost revenues, the levy increase will be below a 3 percent increase. While there may be staff layoffs, Houle said if that happens the number of people affected should be fewer than in recent years.
In the challenging times, Houle said the county shed a lot of old methods, embraced technology and created a service mantra. On the technology side, there are online videos of board meetings, commissioners using laptops and trimming paper costs and some 60,000 land records are moving from paper to computer.
As for employee morale, Houle said the layoffs have been difficult particularly when people are losing jobs in this economy's tough job market. Since 2008, the county's staff is down 10 percent.
Challenges ahead include hiring a county engineer, continued interaction between county departments for better, more efficient service, Houle said.
He said the county continues to work on the Milford Mine park and on recreational trails where they make sense. An ongoing challenge is striking a balance with motorized and non-motorized trail use. But in the present tight economy, the focus is more on need than want, Houle said.
Houle said an interesting piece of the future will be how social media, such as Twitter and others, affects government and the public dialogue with elected officials.
With more county services available online, the county will effectively be open 24-hours a day. With applications filed online, Houle said an applicant for a land permit may just meet a staff member on site and never step foot into the county offices. Those online changes are expected to decrease counter traffic and phone calls to county offices.
"I'm sincerely impressed with this organization," Houle said of Crow Wing County. "I'm excited about the future. ... I'm really excited about being here, now, at this moment in time."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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