County administrator to retire: Ingstad has kept a steady hand on the financial tiller
In his six years as Becker County administrator, Jack Ingstad has brought a steady, conservative hand to county government.
There have been a lot of changes in just a half-dozen years, but when asked about accomplishments, Ingstad said he is most proud of the county's fiscal condition.
Some administrators would have pointed to the new $22 million county jail due to open soon, but Ingstad is much more enthused about how the county was able to find creative ways to pay for that jail without breaking the bank or taking on a big debt load.
"We did a guaranteed maximum price with the construction company — the jail will open on schedule and on budget — and we'll probably get $500,000 back in sales tax we've paid," he said. Another $300,000 that was set aside for reserves will likely not be needed for the project, he said.
"Finances are always the most critical for an organization," he said. "All the places I've worked have increased their bond rating — here we've been updated twice by Standard & Poor's to a AA bond rating, which is about as high as you can go," he said.
Ingstad has had the good fortune to work with a fiscally conservative board, and to oversee a county with a growing tax base, but he brought his own nose for solid finances to the position, and levy hikes have been low throughout his tenure.
"Give credit to the elected officials," he said. "They're the ones who make the decisions."
Ingstad, 65, is retiring next month after 36 years in government service — 24 of those years leading county governments in Colorado, California and Minnesota.
He knows government service inside and out, having served on the Grand Forks City Council and later as a young mover and shaker in the North Dakota Senate. He has a law degree and he has worked in journalism.
He was the top county administrator at Eagle County, Colo., for 12 years, during which it was named "The Best Run County."
He managed the Eagle County Regional Airport and the addition of a new passenger terminal, a major runway extension and an airport control tower. Ingstad was responsible for all financial matters related to the airport including long term bonds, lease negotiations with seven commercial airlines and six rental car companies. Today that airport is one of the busiest commercial airports in Colorado.
But things went south at his next job, as chief administrative officer for Plumas County, Calif. Boom times there disappeared with the great recession in 2008-09, and it was some tough years at the helm there.
So Ingstad has particularly enjoyed returning to his home turf and working in county government in Minnesota, where state finances are relatively stable. It's also been nice to be close to family and friends, he said.
"It's been a pleasure to come back to where I grew up and spend some time here," he said. "How lucky to finish out my career in Becker County. I understand the people here, there's a work ethic, and handshake is still a handshake — it's a very special place."
There have been a lot of changes in Becker County government in the last six years. Ingstad has worked with three different sheriffs, and seen four of the top people in the county attorney's office go on to become district judges.
There have been big changes at the transfer station and in the county's recycling program and the way it handles solid waste.
A whole new communication system for law enforcement, fire departments and first responders was rolled out, a new emergency services; a new 911 center was set up for dispatchers, and of course the new jail is ready to roll on Highway 59 North.
Although he won't miss the worst part of the job — dealing with personnel issues, he said he'll miss the people. "I'll miss all the commissioners and department heads and staff," he said. "Every place I've worked I've kept in touch with them after I left. You work with people on a daily basis, you feel like you're part of a family."
Ingstad and his wife, Mary, are moving to the Southwest to be closer to the ski slopes, and to family. They have two married daughters in Reno, and they have two grandsons, ages 2 and 3. "They're the perfect age for me," Ingstad said with a wink. "They drive their parents crazy and they love their grandpa."