My County Service Has Been Fulfilling and Humbling

Posted on March 2, 2015

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Jay Gsell is the County Manager of Genesee County, NY. As a follow up to Phil Smith-Hanes article on county government, we’ve asked Jay to share his experience.

My County Service Has Been Fulfilling and Humbling

By: Jay Gsell – LinkedIn and Twitter
A recent ELGL article got me thinking about my particular experience in working for a County government for the better part of 21 years and my previous 18 years in local/regional government positions.
An Affinity for County Government
newark riots lifeFirst, I must profess a greater affinity for County government in terms of my goals and objectives and thinking back to 40 years ago as I was getting out of graduate school at the demise of the Nixon Administration and working in Washington D.C. for Washington COG.  Also being a kid from New Jersey and watching Newark Burn in the mid 1960’s and “pay to play” and corruption running rampant in local governments, I wanted to make sustainable difference and feel that what I started, I would be able to see through to completion i.e. policy enactment and change in government efficiency and effectiveness.
County government, in my experience, deals with the broader issues of community health, well-being, safety and security, economic development and opportunity, and has a lot of “service business”/citizen contact in departments like Health, Department of Motor Vehicles, Criminal Justice, incarceration, E911, Social Services, Mental Health and Long Term Care.  Minutia like sidewalk replacement, water line breaks and scheduling baseball/softball fields is the province of our partners in local government – cities, towns, villages, boroughs, etc., along with all their significant police, fire, water, sewer and road services.
New York State of Mind

In New York State Counties and other local governments have considerable interaction and collaboration particularly in areas of enlightened self – interest – youth services, justice courts, E911/interagency task forces and support services like civil service testing and regulations,  road sign maintenance and repair, vehicle fuel farms, cross jurisdictional water service and Smart Growth/economic development community wide initiatives.  All New York State local governments ARE being challenged to do more shared services/collaboration and even consolidation under what is likely to become a New York State imposed permanent, annual property tax levy cap of 2% or less.
The ongoing relationship between counties and other local governments must be built on trust, communication, transparency and mutual gain when it comes to shared services/collaboration.  Our county and its partners have a long history of such positive interaction.  This also translates into how and why we share local option sales tax 50/50 with the other local governments with an eye to controlling our property tax rates and sustain basic/essential services across the communities/County.
As we continue to evolve and with some “not so subtle” pressures from above (the State) I foresee more shared services/collaboration and elimination of duplicate/overlapping services, particularly “back office”/ support services like payroll/personnel, real property assessment, purchasing and tax collection.
Deciding Between City and County Work
Having worked for eight different local/regional governments before my tenure with a county, the various job searches I engaged in were in mostly the pre internet/website information era.  In assessing whether to apply for a certain local government position, my criteria would be/are the same; History of tenure for Chief Administrative Officer, fiscal solvency, long range planning, community vibrancy, quality schools/local post-secondary education access, local media reports on governing body and community interaction with local government and independent analysts reports, i.e. audits/budgets and history of progressive, proactive policy development and implementation.  Also, the tenure and professionalism of department/leadership staff and Chief electeds in a particular government is a key factor in gauging potential Chief Administrative Officer’s success as “the new kid on the block”.
412tIjAoUrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Here in Western New York, elected officials tend to have a certain degree of partisan political allegiance and connection to State and federal electeds of the same party.  Small “p” politics is the nature of the beast when it comes to local Legislative bodies and how they interact with each other and our citizens/constituents.
County electeds often have a more global, less parochial vision and electoral reality but as the saying goes, “all politics is local”.  Accountability and effectiveness usually translates into electability and having a connection with/ affinity for your constituents/the voters/taxpayers, no matter what the level of local government.
As I said earlier, my preference for County government (even New York State mandate – burdened counties) has consistently reinforced my career goals and orientation to be effective, efficient, creative, proactive, a change agent and responsible steward of the public trust and resources entrusted to we local government “servants”/professionals.
A Home in Western New York
1526960_10152142855725049_218699241_nOn a more personal note, my family has truly embraced my public sector, no longer nomadic/ “itinerant vendor” career with my present county position.  Since never in my 63 years have I lived in the same place or home for this long, I think I truly found my niche in Western New York and county government in general.
The job as county Chief Administrative Officer is never boring or mundane, I relish going to work every day and working with similarly minded and empowered people who aren’t afraid to take calculated risks and represent the best interests of our county and those we serve.  It’s not about accolades, awards, praise or self-aggrandizement – as my wife says – she married me for my potential and recognized I would never make high six figure salaries (Mr. Rizzo and Bell, CA. Scalawags aside).  I prefer to not see my name in the paper and particularly not on the editorial page or in the obituaries and that’s why local government in general and my county service has been both a fulfilling and humbling experience.

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