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Archive for Sunday, May 25, 1997

WEINAUG MAKES COUNTY HUM

May 25, 1997

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As Douglas County's top administrator, Craig Weinaug is leaving his stamp on local government.

While it's the three Douglas County commissioners who make the policy decisions that chart the direction of local government, those elected officials aren't running the county.

The man behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz who makes things happen on a day-to-day basis in Douglas County, is Craig Weinaug, who will mark his five-year anniversary as county administrator on June 7.

At no time is Weinaug's influence over the county's operations more apparent than in the annual budgeting process, which currently is under way. By Aug. 1 the county commission will have approved an annual budget, fashioned from options laid out by Weinaug, to replace the $29 million spending blueprint the county is following this year.

``My recommended budget is a mix of what I think is appropriate, and what I think the commissioners want,'' Weinaug said.

Commissioners give Weinaug budgetary objectives to try to meet and then add and subtract from the recommended budget he presents.

``When it's all said and done, it's a budget that the county commissioners think of as their budget,'' he said.

The commission's right hand

Weinaug says his job was designed as a supporting role to the commission -- nothing more. He sees himself as a conduit for information that commissioners will use to make their own decisions and said it would be counterproductive for him to stake out his own positions on issues.

``Part of my job is to help them reach consensus on issues, and to help them understand the ramifications of their decisions,'' Weinaug said.

``Part of my job also is to never put myself in a position where I could be perceived as being not fully supportive of what the commissioners want,'' he said. ``Rarely do you see me take an active role in county commission meetings with the possible exception of budget hearings.''

However, being the author of the budget proposal that goes before county commissioners each summer, Weinaug has undeniable influence over how county tax dollars are spent. Before drafting the budget, Weinaug will have spent weeks in hearings with county department heads hashing out budget scenarios. Ultimately he will lay out options for commissioners to consider.

Crunching the numbers

County Commission Chairman Mark Buhler, who hired Weinaug in 1992, said Weinaug really shines this time of year.

``The budget is his strength,'' Buhler said. He has been particularly impressed with Weinaug's ability to gather information from county department heads and representatives of government-funded agencies and to apprise the commission of the impact a budget would have on services delivered to the public.

Former County Commissioner Jim Chappell said it would be naive to believe Weinaug didn't wield a great deal of power over the shape the final budget takes. Weinaug and Chappell clashed frequently during Chappell's four-year term on the commission, which ended in January.

``It was pretty apparent that Craig was the stage master in the budget process,'' Chappell said. ``He was the guy with the clip board who directs the thespians to dance across the stage. He decides which act plays when.''

Sharpening the pencil

Chappell said during his 20-year career in public administration Weinaug had established himself as a shrewd budgeter who was not averse to cutting jobs. Weinaug, he said, can capitalize on a growing valuation to craft a spending package with a lower mill levy.

``He believes it's better from a perception standpoint to look like you're holding the line,'' Chappell said. ``He's very proud of the fact that at every administrative stop he's cut personnel.''

Weinaug said because personnel costs comprise the lion's share of any government budget, elected officials who want to cut spending usually have to find the savings in a smaller payroll.

``If I have a county commission that sets a high priority on lower taxes, I have to give them alternatives that involve personnel," he said. "But I also have to tell them the ramifications'' in terms of service.

Serving new masters

Weinaug emphasized he hadn't had any directive to cut jobs this year, although it's clear the current county commissioners want to see a tight budget.

``They have asked me to identify ways to do things more efficiently in all departments,'' he said.

Buhler noted the two new county commissioners -- Dean Nieder and Tom Taul joined Buhler in January -- will put their own spin on the budgeting process, and Weinaug will have to build their objectives into his spending proposal.

``It's a difficult job because personalities change and value systems change with new commissioners,'' Buhler said.

He said having been through the budgeting process with Weinaug five times, Weinaug always had worked to help the commissioners achieve their goals for the county.

``I think Craig's agenda is that he wants honest government, and that he wants elected officials to make the best decisions possible,'' Buhler said.

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