With retirement impending, one of Nevada County’s most important officials reflected on his eventful tenure in an institution that has been dramatically altered due to severe economic hardship in the middle of the last decade.
Joe Christoffel’s official title is Nevada County Deputy County Executive Officer. But in reality, Christoffel is the county’s chief financial officer.
Initially coming on the county payroll in 2002, Christoffel is set to retire in June. He has steered the county’s largest employer — with more than 770 employees and a budget of $180 million — through one of the most tumultuous economic periods in the history of the nation.
Christoffel said the lodestar that has guided his navigation through choppy economic waters has been simple:
“Don’t spend more than you got.”
The seeming simplicity of Christoffel’s mantra belies the complexity of the region’s largest public agency, housing about 30 different departments under its operational aegis. By comparison, Grass Valley’s budget is about $10 million, the town of Truckee’s is $16.5 million, and Nevada City’s budget hovers around $7 million.
The ability to keep the county solvent in recent years can be attributed to “controlling expenses on the expenditure side of the ledger,” Christoffel said.
When Christoffel first started in 2002, property tax revenue was on the rise, and the employee roster was at 1,050. In the present fiscal year, property tax revenue continues to decline, and the employee roster is at 771.
In California, counties cannot raise the tax rates, so the revenue picture “is what it is,” Christoffel said. Officials can raise fees and massage sales tax, but 75 percent of discretionary income arrives via property taxes.
Delivering core services while controlling the expenses it takes to do so became paramount for the county in an era when property values plummeted at heretofore unheard-of rates.
“It’s the deepest recession I’ve seen in my career,” said Christoffel, who spent the balance of that career in the private sector in charge of his company or directing finances for large corporations.
“Some people think this is the new normal,” he said. “I believe in the U.S.’ ability to be productive and bring about a vibrant healthy economy.”
Christoffel said he believes the county came out of the other side of the recession better off than most public agencies largely because county officials saw signs of impending problems as early as the 2004-05 fiscal year and began to set aside money.
“The board made a wise decision to set aside money against the likelihood there would be darker times, which is what occurred,” he said.
The board set aside about $3.4 million, of which $1.2 million has been used to balance the budget the past couple of fiscal years — comparatively lean times.
Christoffel, who is relentlessly humble, credited the board of supervisors of past and present, which he described as fiscally conservative bodies.
Furthermore, Christoffel said the balance of the department heads, with a few unnamed exceptions, have employed the same fiscal responsibility on the micro level that he seeks to instill on the macro level.
Finally, he credited the employees of the county for agreeing to several concessions over the past five years.
However, County Executive Officer Rick Haffey was quick to recognize Christoffel’s contributions.
“Joe Christoffel(’s) talent and judicious budget practices assisted the county greatly in meeting the financial challenges over the past seven years,” Haffey said in a prepared statement.
“While other local governments dipped into their reserves at the first sign of the downturn, the county of Nevada resisted doing so and began to trim expenditures while maintaining the fund balances in the county’s reserves. Nevada County continues to be poised better than most cities and counties. Joe was instrumental in maintaining the financial stability of the county.”
Christoffel, as he has maintained throughout the past couple of years, said that the public pension system in California is expensive, but he does not believe pensions in Nevada County will hamper the public institution from delivering core services in the near term.
While there is a significant amount of prognostication in Christoffel’s role — as he must project short-term economic conditions to be able to formulate a working budget on an annual basis — he attempts to steer clear of long-range forecasts.
“You have to have enough foresight to perform tactical corrections throughout the year,” Christoffel said.
In doing so, the CFO must be able to be conservative enough not to stretch dollars too thin, while not being too conservative and unnecessarily cut vital services to county residents.
Christoffel felt the team assembled around him has been able to do just that — accurately predict where revenues and expenditures will fall in a given year.
He lists that and building a transparent and consistent budget process as among his biggest accomplishments during his time at Nevada County, along with making the budget process more comprehensible to the average citizen.
“Joe made the complexities of county finances understandable to the general public,” Haffey said. “Joe put a great deal of work into publishing a county budget that was assessable and easily understood.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.
“Joe (Christoffel) made the complexities of county finances understandable to the general public.”
— Nevada County Executive Officer Rick Haffey