San Joaquín County administrator Manuel López announced he will retire this year, ending more than 11 years as county government's top unelected official.
First taking the post in 2001, López was the lead administrator during both the boom years that fattened county coffers and the precipitous drop that followed after last decade's crippling housing crisis and subsequent economic fallout.
The county's $1.26 billion budget has now leveled out after years of ups and downs, and it looks like it could stay that way, he said. Together with the elected Board of Supervisors, he said, "We put (the budget) in a place where San Joaquín County could have stability for a long time."
Also, the 66-year-old López said, it's time to make room for younger blood and new ideas.
López gave a memo to members of the Board of Supervisors and county department heads last Monday afternoon, saying he would retire March 29. But it doesn't have to be his last day, he said in an interview Tuesday. He said he didn't want to walk away from the job if the Board of Supervisors wished to keep him around through the budget process, which ends in June when the board typically approves a new year's budget.
Supervisors said they had yet to meet to discuss what to do about replacing López. He has been the county's top administrator since he replaced then-County Administrator David Baker, who resigned in 2001 to pursue a doctorate degree. López had been named the county's Public Works Director in 2000, where he had been a deputy director for about 15 years.
Members of the Board of Supervisors praised López for the county not suffering as badly as other public agencies during the boom and bust years of the past decade.
"He has been a great asset to the county, especially during the economic downturn," board Chairman Ken Vogel said. "It's a great credit to him that we've weathered this."
The downturn in the county was part of the worst the country had seen since the Great Depression, Supervisor Steve Bestolarides said. "I think that his leadership has been the guiding light."
López had experience with several boards of supervisors, and he maintained a conservative approach to the budget, even before the economic downturn, Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said. "He always had his hand firmly on that tiller," Ruhstaller said. "He wouldn't have allowed us to give away the farm."
And López's experience helped prepare the county for issues beyond just those fiscal, Supervisor Carlos Villapudua said. "I always said Manuel had a mini crystal ball."
Late last decade, the mortgage crisis and economic fallout worldwide hit San Joaquín County particularly hard. One major impact to the county budget was the loss of tax revenue as property values collapsed. But it didn't happen all at once.
"Nobody had any idea it wasn't going to be a bump in the road -- it was going to be a big pothole," López said.
The county tightened up its hiring policies in early 2008. Later that year it froze hiring for most county positions.
Supervisors said this is one reason the county laid off relatively few employees even though it eliminated more than 800 positions as it slashed the budget in the years to come. The county also drew from reserves and its capital funds while negotiating concessions with its labor groups.
It did help, even though there were better solutions available, said Patrick Ikeda, president of the local chapter of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the county's largest bloc of employees.
"We appreciate the role Lopez played in trying to minimize the layoffs and the takeaways to our members," Ikeda said.
In the past few years, the board has passed policies to build back up both the county's reserves and capital funds, and it looks like revenue from property taxes are on the upswing, López said.
It brings stability, but not without challenges, he said.
Not least of which are the capital projects yet to be tackled. These include building a government facility for the rapidly growing south county, investing in parks, improving the Micke Grove Zoo and other needs, he said.
"You have to keep growing or you start withering."