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Moving Ontario County forward

Ontario County Administrator John Garvey has a list of projects hung up on the back of his office door.

The projects remain on the list when they are completed, but with a check mark to indicate their status. He keeps the list in view to focus on moving the county forward.

Garvey, 67, has been with the county for more than two decades. He began as director of human resources, a position he kept until he replaced Geoffrey Astles as county administrator on July 1, 2011. Astles was retiring, having held the position since 1999.

Garvey oversees a 2015 budget of $212 million, down from $218 million in 2014 and $215 million in 2013. The county employs 740 full-time workers and 161 part-timers.

The focus on long-term projects has helped the county grow, Garvey says, noting Ontario County has a low unemployment rate and a low number of people living below the poverty line.

It also has a growing population, going from about 100,000 residents in 2000 to more than 109,000 today, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Garvey expects the population to continue to grow, pointing to the region’s affordable housing, good schools and natural beauty. But he says that growth is not a given. It is driven by hard work among county employees and elected officials.

“It’s not just about the projects we do,” Garvey says. “It’s about creating a quality of life here and then sustaining it.”

A native of Niagara Falls, Garvey earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Ithaca College in 1969.

Before joining Ontario County, Garvey worked in the private sector, mainly in operations management for manufacturing firms. His experience included jobs in Avon and Iowa at the former HON Industries Inc., which is now HNI Corp., an office furniture manufacturer. Garvey also worked at the Bloomfield site of Coleman Co., an outdoor gear supplier, which is now Crosman Corp.

Serving as the manager of county business, Garvey works with an elected board of supervisors composed of officials from each of the county’s 16 towns and the cities of Canandaigua and Geneva.

Garvey’s duties include working with the board of supervisors on long-range financial strategies, as well as recommending appointments and reappointments for all county department heads. He also works with the financial management committee to create budgets for all county departments, as well as for Finger Lakes Community College.

The county administrator is involved in all capital projects at the county and FLCC and helps develop the annual capital improvement plan, which is part of the annual budget.

Familiarity with the county’s inner workings from his prior county positions has served as an advantage in his current role, Garvey says.

His approach
Garvey lets data do the talking.

His office sends a letter every three weeks or so to county leaders and managers to keep them updated on county happenings. The letters spell out economic indicators, such as the county unemployment rate and sales tax collections for the most recent quarter, and purchasing and safety updates.

Garvey’s schedule follows the monthly board meetings. He spends a week attending committee meetings and the remainder of the time executing projects and conducting routine business.

Garvey describes his role as that of an agent of change. Whether working in the private or public sector, he is the one to whom people turn to lead projects.

Victor Town Supervisor Jack Marren, who serves as chairman of the board of supervisors, describes Garvey as a good listener.

Garvey’s time as human resources director gives him a broad sense of how the county works, as well as long-established relationships with employees and elected officials, Marren adds.

Garvey is willing to be the face of the county.

“When the public has questions or concerns, John is willing to step up and take the lead,” Marren says.

Farmington Town Supervisor Ted Fafinski says Garvey’s time in the private sector has helped him in his current role.

“He understands how things work in business and can apply that to government,” Fafinski says.

Fafinski, who has worked with Garvey since becoming a town supervisor in 1998, says Garvey does not shy from hard decisions. He thinks matters through and explains what benefits will result.

“These are the types of things that make Ontario County just a little step ahead of the rest,” Fafinski says.

The best part of the job is seeing coun-ty workers achieve outstanding results, Garvey says.

“We have a very strong team here,” Garvey says. “When we work together to achieve our goals it gives me a great sense of satisfaction.”

Major challenges
Unfunded state and federal mandates are the county’s two biggest challenges. “They like to tell us what to do, but then don’t send the money for us to do it,” Garvey says. “Then they wonder why we can’t reduce taxes.”

Other challenges involve the mental health and substance abuse populations. Placing people with those issues in the county jail, rather than providing them alternative services for help, has led to overcrowding.

Garvey is working with other county officials to come up with better solutions, but “there are no good answers” for these groups.

While Ontario County struggles with problems similar to those of other municipal governments, Garvey credits the county’s leaders and employees with helping the municipality succeed.

Its success largely has been due to its diverse economic development, which includes a mix of businesses, from agriculture to manufacturing, he says. He also credits the board of supervisors’ efforts to be fiscally conservative, actions that have helped Ontario receive favorable credit ratings. In 2012, Moody’s Investment Service issued an Aa1 credit rating to the county.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Garvey says. “It’s just continuous improvement.”

The county will continue to help businesses create jobs and look for ways to improve on county operations, he says.

He is also proud of the number of women who hold leadership roles at the county. Among them is Mary Gates, a 21-year employee who is deputy county administrator.

An effort is also being made to develop the county workforce and look at succession planning as baby boomers begin to retire, Garvey says.

Retiring the bass
In October, Garvey retired from Paulsen, Baker & Garvey, an acoustic band he played bass in for some 40 years. The remaining members perform now as Paulsen & Baker.

Leaving the band gives Garvey more time with family. He and his wife, Kate, live in Victor and they have two adult daughters, Christine, 29, and Meghan, 26. Garvey likes to travel to visit his daughters. Christine is a veterinarian in Seattle and Meghan is a social worker in St. Louis.

Garvey is focused on adding check marks to his list of projects.

Those finished products include selling the county health facility to a private vendor, having the county take over the assigned counsel program, joining the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority and upgrading the county’s emergency response system.

Among the projects still in the works are a new satellite campus for Finger Lakes Community College in Geneva, upgrades to the college’s main site in Hopewell and a space reallocation program at the county courthouse in Canandaigua that would add a third court room.

While retirement is something he sees down the road, it is not in the near future.

“There are no plans at the moment,” Garvey says. “I still have too much to do here.”

John Garvey
Title: Ontario County administrator
Age: 67
Education: B.A. in political science from Ithaca College, 1969
Residence: Victor
Family: Wife, Kate; daughters, Christine, 29, and Meghan, 26
Hobbies: family, travel
Quote: On Ontario County’s growth: “It’s not just about the projects we do; it’s about creating a quality of life here and then sustaining it.”

2/20/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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