Chesco official calls it a career
WEST CHESTER » The day after Labor Day this year will be different in Chester County.
For the first time in more than 40 years, September will usher in without the presence of Mark Rupsis as a part of the county government apparatus. Rupsis started his career here in September 1977 as a young program analyst, his first job out of graduate school, at a time when the county was just beginning to feel the coming impact of demographic growth that would put it today at the head of the table in local government in Pennsylvania — most prosperous, most healthy, fastest growing, most fiscally stable. Now he is set to retire. “People would always make the comment to me, ‘Mark, you’re going to be here forever,’” Rupsis said during an interview in his office on the sixth floor of the county’s Administrative Offices building overlooking West Market Street. “And while I love working here and I love my job, in the back of my head I’ve thought, ‘That’s not where I want to end up.’”
The decision to step down from his current post as chief operating officer came as a blow to many in county government — commissioners Chairwoman Michelle Kichline has mused publicly about trying to talk him out of it — but not as a total surprise. Other friends have retired; he has a granddaughter to dote on; a wife, Ellie, free to travel with; three grown children, Lindsay, Lauren and Matthew, to visit; and a list of accomplishments long enough to secure his legacy in county government for a long time.
He oversaw or had a hand in the construction of major county building projects; delivered budgets that not only fit the model of conservative spending his bosses desired but also became an award-winning model of government transparency; continued the county’s visionary investment in open space protection; forged a rare fiscal milepost with three “Triple A” bond ratings; handed out hundreds of proclamations and honors to citizens and community organizations across the county landscape; and blended comfortably, for the most part, with 18 different county commissioners.
The latter may be the most impressive accomplishment of Rupsis’ career. He has kept his position and been promoted to the top of the county employee pyramid while working with a diverse set of political and social personalities in a world where turnover can come with the wind of a new election.
“They have all had the different interests and personalities,” Rupsis said of the commissioners he has seem come and go — from Earl Baker, Leo McDermott and Robert Struble in 1977 when he was hired to Kathi Cozzone, Terence Farrell and Kichline as he walks out the proverbial, and literal, door. “Some want to know what time it is; some commissioners want to know how the clock works. The challenge has been getting a feel for that.
“Over the years, sometimes in the process of learning that you get it wrong,” he said. “But you try to adjust. Fortunately over the years I’ve been able to adjust.”
He was hired with a graduate degree in public administration from Penn State and put to work looking at the financial and program efficiency of different parts of the county government. He recalled how different those tasks were in the late 1970s and early 1980s than they are today, because of the development in information technology and computer science. What in 1981 might have taken a day to put together on a spread sheet now takes a fraction of a day.
In the 1980s, Rupsis was promoted to the position of director of administrative services, and served in a triumvirate of county heads with Molly Morrison and Wayne Rothermel, both of whom left the county’s employment years before he will. He was later named director of administration, chief administrative officer, and in 2011, chief operating officer.
Rupsis’s role in the commissioners’ office has not been that of a visionary; rather, he is a fiscal expert who can help the commissioners put ideas into place, or gently explain to them why what they want is not possible, at the time.
“My role is to give the commissioners the information that they need to make a decision, and to provide input,” he said. It is then up to them to make the decision to move forward or stay put. “I really respect elected officials because it’s tough to say no to people who want something done. Commissioners have to do that from time to time.
“But they make the decisions,” he said. “I have to carry them out. That’s part of my job.”
Since the business of government rests considerably on the expenditure of money, keeping the county’s budget in line is essential. Rupsis has done this to the extent that the nation’s three top bond rating organizations, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch, have each given the county a sought after “AAA” rating. That means the county can borrow money to meet its capital needs at a lower cost, saving taxpayers money in the long run.
The budget is also a physical document that investors, ratings agencies, and normal citizens can explore to see how the public’s money is being spent, where, and how.
When Rupsis started working in the county, the budget itself was a makeshift document, 20 pages of typed figures with little context or background. Today’s document is more than 350 pages deep, with excruciating detail on where the $465 million the county spends comes from and where it goes, as well as mountains of information about what Chester County is, and why the commissioners spend their money the way they do.
For several years, the document has been given the Distinguished Budget Presentation award by the Government Finance Officers’ Association.
“That document is one of the things I am really proud of,” Rupsis said. “I know I have been blessed to have great department heads, one of whom was (the former) finance director, Caroline Cassels. We talked about (the budget document), and said, ‘We’ve always tried to be a leading county, and part of being a leader is to show accountability in terms of transparency.”
Where other counties may still regard exploration by outsiders as intrusive, Rupsis has made it easy to accomplish.
“I think that helps is maintain out selves as a premier county, and be recognized as such,” he said.
The commissioners have planned a reception this week to honor Rupsis as he heads out the door. It will be interesting to note how many of the past commissioners will come to wish him well (of the 18 he has served under, only two have died.) And how broad their smiles will be at the long memories he brings out.
Chester County Chief Operating Officer Mark Rupsis will retire from county government at the end of this month after 41 years of service.