Specific duties of a county administrator

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

The most effective county boards of commissioners focus on the creation of policy and oversight of the budget. At the same time, they encourage county administrators, department heads, and staff to utilize their skills and creative talents to carry out the day-to-day work of the county.

Nearly 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties have some form of county administration, some hired under the county’s general authority to hire staff and given duties by the board, others hired under the controller statute with both statutory and board given responsibilities, and four who are elected.

One might consider this approach a “best practice.” According to Michigan State University (MSU) Emeritus Professor and Author Ken VerBurg in the Fourth edition of the Guide to Michigan County Government; this “best practice” is what provides excellent service to residents.

VerBurg gives details about the specific duties of a county administrator. In addition, many administrators today also oversee departments other than those headed by elected officials, and may have hiring authority over those department heads.

“What responsibilities do county administrators or coordinators have? The title implies perhaps greater responsibility than most of these county employees actually exercise, at least in a formal sense. They, like the controllers, usually do not have responsibility for line departments. Their duties and responsibilities range widely among the counties, depending on the circumstances within a county and the wishes of the board itself. But we find them working in the same general areas as county controllers and county managers. County administrators direct or assist budget development and monitoring, and have charge of purchasing, building operation and maintenance, personnel, and collective bargaining, and other staff functions. They assist the boards in defining administrative and policy alternatives.

County government is structured so that the departments headed by elected officers such as courts, prosecuting attorney, clerk, treasurer, register of deeds, sheriff, drain commissioner, have a good deal of independent responsibility assigned by law. Some other departments such as road commissions, parks and recreation, planning and zoning, health, and others are directed by independent commissions and through state funding programs. Moreover, many of these officers must deliver services that are mandated by state law. Because of such an organizational structure, effective county administration relies on building and maintaining cooperative relationships so that the various department heads understand the scope of the resources available to county government and the need for teamwork in the county courthouse and the other county facilities.

For the most part, those who fill the ranks of county administrator or coordinator in county government are not people who have held elected county positions. It is not uncommon, however, for them to have been working in county government prior to being named to the administrator position. While some county administrators have had experience in business or industry, most had last worked in public sector agencies at local, state, or national levels. As a general rule, county administrators, like controllers, are highly educated. Most are college graduates; many have advanced degrees. Their educational training typically is in management, public administration, or accounting and finance,” said VerBurg.

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, and extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The book is a Michigan State University publication and is being updated by current MSU faculty so that the information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected early winter 2016/2017.

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