Carroll losing its expertise to retirement

Dozens of county workers, many in key leadership roles, will leave their jobs by year's end, taking with them critical experience and institutional memory


By the end of the year, 25 Carroll County staffers, many of them with decades of service, will leave the county's employ. A few are moving to jobs in the private sector, but most are retiring, taking with them years of experience and institutional memory.

Among the retirees are Richard Soisson, director of recreation and parks, who has overseen construction of hundreds of acres of county parks; Bill Powel, who has spearheaded the county's highly praised farmland preservation program since its inception nearly 30 years ago; and Gary Horst, who heads performance auditing and has set the stage for millions of dollars in expansions and renovations at the county airport.

"How can we be comfortable when we are losing all that institutional memory?" said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "These people have given years of dedicated service and provided the framework and depth to our operation. We want to bring on replacements who buy into that same work ethic."

Horst, who will work as a contractual consultant after he retires, gave the county five months' notice, allowing time for training and transition. He has been working with Joseph Varrone, his replacement, since August.

"Fortunately, some of these retirees will stay with us on a contractual basis and will help get everybody trained," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "They have given us advance notice so that we have been able to plan."

Powel also will stay on part time in a consulting role, but Soisson is handing over the keys to his office and hoping to indulge his penchant for travel.

"I have been here 30 years, and I feel like I want to do other things," Soisson said. "What those are I have not figured out yet."

The list of names of those retiring reaches into nearly every department. Richard Owings, chief of the county Bureau of Development Review, and Bruce Waldron, a longtime planner, both retired last month.

"I have written a summary of every project that is still hanging and tried to make my retirement as seamless as possible," said Owings, who has relocated to Iowa after nearly 20 years with the county. "I am leaving this department in good shape. It is restaffed with experienced people."

Clay Black, who brings years of experience in helping plot Carroll's development, moved into Owings' job, and the county has hired two new planners.

"We still have experience and expertise by moving Clay Black to bureau chief," said Steven C. Horn, county director of planning. "We have two capable new hires in place who have had excellent training opportunities."

While turnover can be difficult, it does offer a chance to reorganize, Horn said.

"It gives us an opportunity to revisit the process and make sure we are focusing on our customers and providing the best services we can," he said. "We are always looking at ways to make improvements."

Departures will continue for the next few years, said Carole Hammen, county director of human resources. About 160 of the 640 county employees - who average 16 years tenure and 46 years of age - are eligible for retirement or soon will be, she said.

"We have an aging work force and we knew eventually time would catch up with us," Hammen said. "Some long-tenured employees have reached an age where they want to retire."

Hammen has stressed succession planning with department heads since she took over Carroll's human resources six years ago.

"We have to cultivate current employees," she said. "We look into each department to see who might be able to take over the reins and train that person so that operations are covered. We have directors thinking about who could go and how they can make their departments ready for those departures."

The county has promoted internally whenever possible. Robert M. Burk dropped "acting" and "deputy" from his title in August, when the county commissioners named him comptroller to replace Eugene Curfman, who retired last year after nearly 25 years in the job. Burk joined the county comptroller's staff in 1998 as a staff accountant and was promoted to deputy five years ago.

Horst's five months' notice allowed the county time to hire Varrone from a job with Howard County. The interim has given both employees time to make the transition.

"I have a replacement on board and several months to train him," Horst said. "I want to work part time for a while and see the airport project to its completion."

Ralph Robertson, Carroll's agricultural land preservation specialist, will take over for Powel.

"I am very comfortable leaving the program in good hands with Ralph," said Powel, who has shifted to a three-day week, working on a contractual basis as a program technician with "much of the same work with less responsibility."

Minnich said, "I don't see Bill as leaving. For years, it has been Bill and Ralph. Now it will be Ralph and Bill."

Gouge said officials are keenly aware of the aging work force.

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