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.