Merced County hires CEO from Sutter County

October 20, 2009 

The longtime chief administrator of Sutter County has accepted an offer to become Merced County's new CEO, both counties said Monday.

Larry Combs, 60, is slated to begin Nov. 30 in Merced. He will replace Dee Tatum, who has served as CEO since 2001 and announced in January that he'll retire at the end of this year.

Merced County said in a written statement issued Monday afternoon that the Board of Supervisors has appointed Combs on a preliminary basis. Supervisors are set to vote to officially hire him during an open meeting on Oct. 27, the county said.

Combs has worked for the past 26 years as the chief administrator of Sutter County, which is located north of Sacramento and has a population less than half that of Merced County.

Supervisors chose Combs for his demonstrated success in Sutter, where he has carefully managed the county's budget and forged partnerships with local cities and neighboring counties, the county's statement said.

During his time as Sutter's chief administrator, the county has "been fiscally stable, with little debt, a large reserve and no employee layoffs, even in light of state cutbacks," the statement said.

The CEO is the highest nonelected official at the county. The position's responsibilities include implementing policies set by the Board of Supervisors and managing Merced County's 2,300 employees and its $460 million annual budget.

By comparison, Sutter County employs roughly 1,000 people and keeps a yearly budget of about $250 million.

Supervisors said during their search for a new CEO that they were looking for an experienced candidate capable of shepherding the county through difficult financial times. Faced with a sharp decline in tax revenues and massive funding cuts handed down from Sacramento, the county slashed its budget earlier this summer by $30 million.

Supervisors have said they're preparing for even tougher times ahead.

"I think that experience handling a county and a county budget -- that was very important to us," Supervisor Hub Walsh said. "We were impressed with all the candidates we met with, but that longevity really set Mr. Combs apart."

In a phone interview Monday, Combs said he applied for the job because he sees it as an opportunity to take on new challenges in a larger county. "Merced is very similar to Sutter, just bigger," he said. "We're facing a lot of the same issues."

He said he looks forward to working with other county leaders to create jobs, redevelop the former Castle Air Force Base, welcome a new high-speed rail line to Merced and meet goals set by the Board of Supervisors. "I think Merced County has a lot to offer," he added.

Indeed, moving to Merced will mean a considerably bigger job for Combs. Merced's population is more than double Sutter's, and at least two-thirds of Sutter's residents live in Yuba City, outside unincorporated areas.

Like Merced, Sutter's economy is based in agriculture and government work.

Sutter County supervisors described Combs as unfailingly fiscally conservative.

For at least 18 years he has been saving county dollars in a reserve account in preparation for a fiscal crisis -- a strategy that has served the county well in recent months, supervisors said. Sutter has roughly $27 million in savings.

"He's probably one of the hardest-working (chief executives) you'll ever meet," board chairman Jim Whiteaker said.

Supervisor Stan Cleveland said that with a quarter-century of experience in Sutter, Combs has moved beyond day-to-day issues to fight for the county's interests at the state and federal levels.

"His abilities have outgrown our county," Cleveland said.

Still, the county has suffered a contentious relationship with the Sutter County Taxpayers Association, said Bob Mackensen, former president of the 80-member association.

The taxpayers group has criticized the county over a pension plan increase passed in 2004 that considerably boosted retirement payouts for many employees. County leaders said it was a way to attract more qualified workers; the taxpayers association complained it was government waste.

Mackensen said he'd be "lighting fireworks" to celebrate Combs' departure. "We are looking forward to the day he leaves," he said. "I think all the taxpayers would say that."

A native of Washington state, Combs began his career in San Diego in 1971 as an analyst for the county's welfare department. He became an assistant chief administrator for Kings County in 1978 before moving to Sutter in 1983.

He holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, both in public administration from San Diego State University, he said.

Earlier this year Merced County hired CPS Human Resource Services, a Sacramento-based headhunting firm, to assist in its CEO search. Roughly two dozen hopefuls applied for the job; the Board of Supervisors interviewed four of them behind closed doors last month.

Tatum, who is 62, is slated to leave the county Dec. 18, three weeks after Combs is expected to start.

Assuming his appointment is confirmed, Combs will earn a yearly base salary of $205,000, plus car, phone and expense allowances.

Combs said he is engaged to be married and that he plans to move to Merced soon with his fiancée. He has five grown children and six grandchildren.

Combs will be the fifth CEO to serve the county in the past 50 years.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209)385-2453 or Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or

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