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From Barnum to Becker County: Meet Pat Oman the new county administrator

“Finding new ways to keep the levy and taxes down at the county and city level has always been of interest to me,” he said.

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Becker County Administrator Pat Oman. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

New Becker County Administrator Pat Oman, 54, came to public administration first through the private sector and then through economic development work.

He grew up in Barnum, Minn., population 649, in Carlton County (just southwest of Duluth) and went to high school there, just like his parents and grandparents before him. He still has lots of relatives there and visits often.

A few things about him: He’s a big believer in preserving historic buildings (he wishes he could have saved the Barnum High School) and he speaks fluent French. And he can speak like a native, not just in France, but in Canada, too, which is a whole ‘nother dialect.

He spent a semester at Bemidji State University (which he loved – his dorm room had a great view of Lake Bemidji) before transferring to the University of Minnesota in Duluth. He graduated with degrees in biology and history, and minors in psychology and French, and joined Honeywell Industries in product development.

He was with Honeywell from 1995 to 2001, and moved from product development into corporate management. But he took a severance package and moved on. “They were moving a lot of things overseas,” Oman said. “I didn’t like that.”

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He became the executive director of the development authority in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. “It was a manufacturing hub and a plastics hub – I really like manufacturing,” he said. After a few years, he moved back to Minnesota to join the East Central Regional Development Commission in Mora. “I only did it for a year, then I was hired to start an economic development authority office in Carlton County,” Oman said.

The price was right for the new EDA office – it was funded entirely with a $200,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, a state development agency in Eveleth.

“I used that money to create more money,” Oman said. The new Carlton County EDA was able to hire staff, create a $10 million loan pool, and implement other wealth creation strategies, he said. “We became an engine for the region in job creation and economic development,” he said.

While working in that region, he had to deal with major flooding.

At the sub-basin level, Carlton County is divided into four major watersheds: the St. Louis River, Nemadji River, Kettle River and Mississippi River watersheds, and they all flooded, he said. “It was unusual for one of the major watersheds to overflow, but for all four watersheds to overflow simultaneously … there were buildings that the rooftops were all you could see.”

While at Carlton County, he did an emergency reorganization of staff and he spent three or four months just focused on assessing flood damage and creating a mitigation plan, required to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for flood damage.

“We also helped buy out damaged homes,” he said. That type of mitigation work continued when he became Moose Lake city administrator in 2009, since Moose Lake is in Carlton County.

“My passion was always economic development, but I wanted to get into administration,” he said.

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At Carlton County, he had great success tapping into federal and state zero-interest deferred loans to improve housing stock and businesses.

They turn into grants after a set number of years.

“Finding new ways to keep the levy and taxes down at the county and city level has always been of interest to me,” he said.

He most recently worked as county administrator for Mille Lacs County, a long, thin county that had poor Internet service.

“We used our (federal) CARE Act dollars to build fiber optic lines along the spine of the county,” he said, and the county also built towers along the route that were leased out to interested parties. “Businesses, government, residents, schools can all access it - we did it to fit the (budget) of our citizens,” he said. “It solved the Internet problem for Mille Lacs County.”

Oman, who is single, says he likes hunting, fishing and traveling. His annual salary is $120,000, about the same as former County Administrator Mike Brethorst, who left the county Oct. 8.

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