Delabbio retires with no regrets
Kent County administrator was ‘truly masterful’ as public servant.
At 31 years old, Daryl Delabbio had his dream job.
Ten years following a visit during a 1974 internship at Plainfield Township, Delabbio fell in love with Rockford and decided he was going to be city manager. In 1984, he received a call as assistant city manager of Garden City. On the other end was Joe Salitros, the city manager who had accepted the Rockford city manager job in 1980, beating out Delabbio.
“He called me up to tell me he was submitting his resignation that night, and I’m on the phone jumping up and down,” Delabbio said. “I applied and got the job, and I had no intention of doing anything else but staying in Rockford as city manager.”
Delabbio is set to retire on June 30, 2017, not as Rockford city manager, but as Kent County controller/administrator, a position he has spent nearly 20 years in, despite never having aspirations to leave city government.
When Delabbio was approached by Kent County Commissioner Pat Malone in 1995, he had two daughters in Rockford High School, and his wife had long been a teacher at Rockford Public Schools. The Delabbio family was set in its ways, and he had no intention of uprooting them, but Malone had an enticing idea: apply to be assistant county administrator.
“One thing in our profession is to move up, you have to move out,” Delabbio said. “I really didn’t want to disrupt my family, but that provided me an opportunity to move up without moving out.”
Delabbio was hired over four candidates, three of whom he knew personally. What Delabbio encountered was far different than expected, as he said most city managers have no idea how much more complex a county government is than a city government.
“Add two zeros to everything except my salary,” he said.
When Melinda Carlton left the county to take a job in Kansas, Malone, now chair of the board of commissioners, and vice chairman Steve Heacock approached Delabbio to fill the void. The pair said they were willing to be crucified by the press to bypass a search for a new county administrator to promote Delabbio. Despite hesitations and a five-month self-prescribed interim trial period, Delabbio accepted the position and officially was appointed in 1999.
Heacock praised Delabbio’s abilities as county administrator following his retirement announcement.
“There is an art to running a $400 million entity with 2,000 employees and 13 bargaining units while answering to a random group of part-time, would-be philosophers, each of whom has his or her own agenda, perceptions and ambitions,” Heacock said. “Daryl is truly masterful. His commitment and dedication is absolute; his humility and empathy led to great relationships and countless win-win collaborations.”
Now, 17 years later, Delabbio is set to finish out his stint at Kent County — much longer than he had anticipated and longer than his career with Rockford, his dream job.
He’ll leave the county confident he’s left it in a condition a successor can come in and pick up where he left off — and potentially do better — because the staff in place won’t miss a step. He also said he won’t be around the county building, unless someone calls him for “lunch or pops after work.”
“After 40 years of doing it, it’s a good time to say I really have nothing left to prove in my career or in my role,” Delabbio said. “There’s always going to be challenges to face, but I can’t address them all.
“I’d much rather leave on my own terms and with a group in place that will carry on and do good work without missing me or knowing I’m gone.”
Before he leaves, however, he still has a chart with a line. The line separates the tasks he wants to complete prior to June 30, 2017, and those he’ll have to leave with a successor. Chief among the tasks when he first laid out the list in January, when he made his decision to retire, is the consolidation of the emergency dispatch system in Kent County.
He could have retired when his contract was up three years ago, but Delabbio’s list of tasks to complete was too long, and he knew he wasn’t ready to retire, as several former colleagues once told him he would know.
The intuition of when to retire became evident the past winter, especially as his recently retired wife would stay in a warm bed as he rose with an early alarm on frigid mornings. Originally, he had set his sights on January 1, 2017, but agreed to stay an extra six months to help with the transition period.
Transitioning to a new county administrator will be easier now than in 2009 or ’10, Delabbio’s toughest years in the job, when the county’s spending down of a peak $115 million in reserves caught up to the organization in the midst of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.
He now takes to heart a comment by Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom when thinking about those tough years.
“I remember him telling me, ‘Anyone can lead when you have money, it’s when you don’t have money you have to lead and manage and survive,’” Delabbio said.
He hopes to put his successor in a position he or she won’t need to lead during a tough time, but one thing Delabbio will have to leave without doing is making it through a budget process without having to make cuts, a task not done since 2009. The county has had Triple-A Bond ratings for 18 consecutive years under Delabbio.
For several years, debt service to the bonds for DeVos Place had to be paid out of the county’s general fund, as the growth in hotel/motel tax wasn’t enough after tourism took a dive following Sept. 11, 2001. Delabbio said each cent paid from the general fund was earmarked and will be paid off as an advance once the bonds are paid off in 2031, so “we’ll start seeing revenues I have not seen.”
“Instead of cursing me, I hope they can thank me,” Delabbio said. “I can add that above my line and check it off. But that kept me up at night.”
Since he began his work in Rockford and transitioned to the county, Delabbio said so many good things have happened and helped make Kent County a place that meets his needs “intellectually, culturally and emotionally.”
Before he leaves office, he has a few more items to check off his list, and he knows the next in line will have plenty to stay busy.
“No one will be bored sitting here,” he said. ”I hope they enjoy the role as much as I have and accomplish more than I did, while seizing the opportunities in areas I’ve been blind to.”