1st Day for New Benton County COO

By Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times | Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012 7:00 am

Dennis Aloia was looking for a change when he applied to be chief operating officer of Benton County, and that’s just what he’s going to get.

After living their entire lives within 10 miles of the Great Lakes, Aloia and his wife, Jean, decided to decided to pull up stakes and leave Michigan for the Willamette Valley, an hour’s drive from the Pacific.

Aloia, 57, starts work at his new job Monday, assuming day-to-day management responsibilities for a county with 370 employees and a 2011-13 budget of $183 million. With an annual salary of $150,566, he’ll be making about $17,000 a year more than his last position as administrator of a county with 500 employees and an annual budget of $130 million.

In Benton County, he’ll supervise all non-elected department heads and report directly to the three county commissioners.

That’s one of the first changes Aloia will notice — he’ll have just three bosses, rather than the nine-member board he worked with for the last decade in Grand Traverse County, Mich.

The two counties are similar in population and income, but different in other ways, starting with the county seats. Corvallis is a college town with a lot of students and an enconomy that revolves around the university. Traverse City, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is a tourist-oriented community with a large number of retirees.

Benton County is better educated, but it also has higher housing costs and a higher poverty rate. Grand Traverse County tends to be politically conservative, with just a single Democrat on the Board of Commissioners, while Benton’s board hasn’t had a Republican member in more than a decade.

There will also be differences in government structure. In Michigan, for instance, townships handle many land use issues that fall to counties in Oregon.

In a telephone interview last week, Aloia said he’s ready for the changes. And while he enjoyed his time in Grand Traverse County, he’s looking froward to a fresh start.

“I’m so charged up. I didn’t realize it, but I had kind of lost my fire here,” he said.

Aloia said he had grown frustrated in the last several years as an influx of new board members led to gridlock on the Grand Traverse County Commission.

“There was, frankly, a lot of infighting that was going on,” he said.

“I think we really lost the focus on the community, didn’t get a lot of stuff done.”

By the time the Benton County position became available, Aloia said, he’d begun to feel that both he and Grand Traverse County needed a new direction.

“I think it’s a little like the coach of a football team: Sometimes a change is needed,” he said. “I think it’ll be a good thing for them and a good thing for me.”

While Aloia may have butted heads with some commissioners, longtime board member Larry Inman, the commission’s current chairman, gave him glowing reviews.

“Throughout his tenure here at the county, Dennis did a superb job,” Inman told the Gazette-Times.

He calls Aloia “the most knowledgable county administrator in the country” and credits him with solidifying Grand Traverse County’s finances, helping it achieve a bond rating of AA, one of the highest in Michigan.

“You’re not going to find anyone any better in the industry than Dennis,” Inman said. “You’ll be very happy with him.”

Aloia consistently got high marks in performance reviews from the board, but not everyone was a fan. Commissioner Christine Maxbauer was a persistent critic and once called for Aloia’s firing. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

And the Traverse City Record-Eagle occasionally took Aloia to task. In a parting shot published Jan. 8, not long after Aloia announced he was taking the Benton County post, an editorial accused him of having an overly cozy relationship with his predecessor, who benefitted from some county consulting contracts.

But Ross Richardson, the lone Democrat on the Grand Traverse County Commission, offered a more balanced perspective. Overall, he said, Aloia is a competent professional who left the county in better shape than he found it.

“Nobody’s perfect. In my mind, sometimes he gave his department heads a little more latitude than maybe they deserved,” Richardson said.

“(But) I think he’s an effective manager. He certainly has a good command of the fiscal side. This county is in very good shape financially, and his leadership certainly has a lot to do with that.”

Aloia will have plenty of opportunities to put his budgetary expertise to work in his new position. His charge from the Benton County commissioners is to bring the county’s expenditures in line with its revenues, and Aloia says he intends to do just that.

Since his hiring just before Christmas, he’s been in regular contact with Benton County officials by phone and email. He’s also been going over the county’s finances, and one of his first orders of business will be to prepare a “mini-budget” for the second year of the fiscal biennium.

Aloia says his preliminary analysis suggests that some departments may wind up with significant fund balances at the end of the budget cycle, and he wants to put new procedures in place to make it easier to track and manage those funds.

“I think there’s more we can do internally to evaluate how we’re spending the money,” he said. “I’m not convinced at this point that we’re in as dire a financial position as what we think we are.”

He also plans to review the county’s purchasing policy and look for opportunities to save money by renegotiating vendor contracts and consolidating some services with city government.

Other things on his “to do” list include managing the move to a new county office building, consolidating the finance and assessment offices, and evaluating the need for a new jail.

But job one, Aloia says, is simply to begin building a positive working relationship with his new bosses, Benton County Commissioners Jay Dixon, Linda Modrell and Annabelle Jaramillo.

“My first priority is going to be to sit down with the board and see what their most important issues are that they want to address,” he said. “My job is to find some commonalities where we can get agreement.”

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.