Ch­esco of­fi­cial calls it a ca­reer

The Phoenix - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael P. Rel­la­han mrel­la­han@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Ch­escoCourtNews on Twit­ter

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.

MICHAEL P. REL­LA­HAN — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Chester County Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Mark Rup­sis will re­tire from county gov­ern­ment at the end of this month af­ter 41 years of ser­vice.

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