White Is On The Money

December 2, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — He won't need two men or a truck to move.

Heck, a few banker's boxes and a pair of walking shoes are probably the only things Bob White will need for his next trip.

After 30 years of tracking the city's money, White will soon head south — about 30 feet south — to do the same for Kent County.

His last day at the city is Dec. 20. His first at the county is Dec. 30.

"It's just that I have been doing this job for almost 31 years and county government is very similar in form and function to city government. It has different responsibilities, but it's still government service," said White of why he joined the county.

"I saw an opportunity for exploring a slightly different venue. That I could still be in government, that I could still be in the area, and that I could provide some assistance in an area that I was familiar with: government finance," he added.

Just to show that the Chicago native has a good head for numbers, he remembered that he started with the city on Jan. 4, 1972. He began as level-one accounting clerk right after he earned his degree from Aquinas College.

Back then the country was mired in a war and a recession, and few were hiring. The city, however, got the first of its federal manpower grants under the Emergency Employment Act the previous year and money from that program was used to fund his salary.

Five years later, White became the city's budget director and the following year then-City Manager Joe Zainea, now with the Waters Corp., appointed him as assistant city manager.

"Later on, in 1981, City Manager Steve Bernard organized the city into service groups and that was when he put more authority behind the title of assistant city manager," he said.

White was one of many employees who took the city up on its early-retirement offer last summer. But before summer turned into fall, the city brought him back on a service contract and he resumed doing many of the things he did before he left the city.

"I'm classified as a temporary employee. No fringe benefits, essentially just a straight hourly rate," he said. "But I still get paid for holidays."

Perhaps White's biggest day was in 1977 when he was chosen to serve on the team that hammered out the pioneering rate formula the city still uses to sell its water and sewer services. That group of 25 included client governments, consumers and a few city staffers.

"We spent a little over a year-and-a-half working with a consultant on developing the methodology that we use today. I think it went a long way, back in those days, to improve relationships between the city and suburban communities," said White.

Before that method was created, the city and the suburbs were at odds over the pricing of those services. City residents were also upset over what seemed to them to be an illogical, confusing and unfair billing system. But most all of that turmoil was put to rest with the formula that was put in place more than a generation ago.

"We have had one significant dispute, which was an issue that was arbitrated, over how we were authorized to allocate the cost of combined sewer overflow improvements. But in 25 years, I think that speaks well of the methodology. We've only had one dispute," he said.

White's reputation as a fiscal director is nearly impeccable, as most in the public sector have known for years. Board members, department heads and commissioners have all been genuinely amazed by his ability to rattle off figures at warp-like speed and actually explain what all those digits mean in the same breath.

Some have been so impressed with his ability that they think he was born for the job, a natural numbers guy who is just fulfilling a lifelong dream of working in the public sector. Well, they would be very wrong.

"Oh, no, I never thought I'd get into government. I took one semester of governmental accounting. Back in those days, it was called governmental and nonprofit accounting, so it wasn't even exclusively governmental accounting," he said. "I didn't know much about it when I started, so it was a lot of learning on the job."

Those same folks also might be surprised to learn that White didn't even consider a career in accounting when he enrolled at Aquinas. In fact, it was almost an accident that he got into the field.

"I think I was like anybody in college. I probably went through about five or six different majors. I was going to be a computer programmer; that was the big field in those days. So I had to be a math major. And I tried calculus in my freshman year and I found out quickly that I didn't want to be a math major," he said, laughing.

"Then I was going to be a science major for a time, then a history major. Then I took a couple of accounting courses and I found that I just had a great aptitude for it, I think," he added. "My dad was an accountant. I never intended to be an accountant. But it turned out to be something that kept me interested."

When White isn't adding up dollars, he likes to keep track of his golf score — a number he didn't reveal but gave a clue to when he said he was an "avid hacker." He also likes to travel. He and Deborah, his wife, did just that last week when they visited Raleigh, N.C.

But his next trip in a few weeks won't take as long or be as far, as he enters his county office for the first time as fiscal director later this month. He will then begin to manage a $400 million budget and oversee a staff of three dozen.

When County Administrator Daryl Delabbio announced that White had emerged as the best candidate from a national search to succeed the retiring Dave Waichum, he did so with much gusto.

"It would appear that county officials are very happy to see me come over," said White. "And it's something that I'm excited about."         

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