Merced County executive officer to retire

After 40 years of working in county government, Larry Combs wasn't planning on throwing in the towel with just two years as Merced County's chief executive officer.

However, a heart attack in May prompted him to re-evaluate his lifestyle.

Combs, 62, met with each supervisor privately Monday to let them know he plans to retire from his position at the end of the year. "I don't really need to work," Combs said. "It's what I love to do."

When Combs started as CEO, he planned to work through his four-year contract and possibly longer, but after taking a couple of months to think about his health, he decided otherwise.

Because of his job's long and unpredictable hours, Combs said, he hasn't been able to take care of himself properly, but plans to once he retires. Combs also wants to spend more time with his wife, Cynthia, who helped him make the decision to retire. "I just decided that my health and my family were my priorities," he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Pedrozo said he understands Combs' reasons for retirement and thanked him for his service to the county. "I think it was an adjustment for Mr. Combs, but I think he was starting to fit into the county and what the county's needs are," Pedrozo said.

The Board of Supervisors will have to act "as quickly as possible" to find a replacement, he said. "I think we're going to try our best to look from within," Pedrozo said. "It has to be someone who knows Merced County and can keep the county afloat."

Combs' arrival in Merced County came during one of the harshest economic climates the area has seen.

To deal with a $20 million shortfall, the county is in the midst of several cutbacks and a wave of layoffs.

Public safety is one of the hardest-hit service areas in the county. Case in point: 34 sheriff's department employees received layoff notices Wednesday. The cuts include 19 correctional officers, five correctional sergeants, five system security operators and five deputies, according to deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

Making a smooth transition

Combs said he plans to pass along as much knowledge as he can to his successor to make the transition smooth. He also has a few plans to help the county improve its standing.

One of the main projects Combs wanted to get done during his time in Merced was developing the former Castle Air Force Base into an economic stimulant. "That's one of the reasons I was excited about this job," he said. "I think Castle is just a jewel in this community. I have some hopes that we will have a couple things going before I leave, but we won't be anywhere near where I would like to be."

In 1971, Combs started his career working for San Diego County. He went to Kings County in 1978 to work as the assistant county administrator. In 1983, Combs was appointed administrator of Sutter County and worked there for 26 years before coming to Merced.

The role of county administrator has changed over four decades. "Because of my own individual personality, stress has never really been a factor," Combs said. "In general, the complexity and the challenges of the job have gotten much more significant over the 40 years I've been doing this."

Once he's retired and has more time, Combs said, he might do some part-time consulting and may even write a book or two.

Combs' base salary when he came to Merced was $205,000 a year, according to his contract. He hasn't set a retirement date, nor has he sent a letter of resignation to the Board of Supervisors or set a resignation date.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.