Saturday, February 1, 2003

Performance, deal for severance debated

Krings: Deserving CEO or overcompensated administrator?

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Hamilton County Administrator David Krings (left) confers before a meeting Monday with Commissioner Phil Heimlich. Heimlich is among several people questioning whether Krings' severance contract is legal.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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His bosses like to say that Administrator David Krings is the CEO of Hamilton County. But his own description of his job is captured in his favorite saying: "I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I can count to two."

That's how many of the three elected county commissioners must agree on something - whether it's Clean Air Day or the $2.19 billion annual budget - to make it so.

The execution is then up to Krings.

Krings counted all the way to three on item No. 40 of the commissioners' Dec. 30 meeting: a six-page contract that promises him at least $434,120 if he's ever fired - whether for good reason or no reason. Not only that, but the administrator can choose to consider himself fired - and collect the full package - if even one commissioner suggests he should resign.

Commissioner Phil Heimlich, sworn in days after the contract was signed, and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes are questioning whether the contract's legal.

The sweetheart deal also has got regular people wondering who the heck David Krings is and, more important, how he could possibly be worth all that.

"Nobody deserves this kind of deal," says Anderson Township resident Mark Daughetee. "He does a good job, great - that's what we have already been paying him well for. Is he the only person in the world that can do his job? Hell, no."

Krings didn't get a raise in December, but he already was the state's highest-paid county administrator at $179,636. Clearly, his bosses like him.

However, others who've worked with Krings either have no comment on his bullet-proof, cash-filled severance package, or are inclined to agree with Daughetee that no one could be worth all that.

What he does, and doesn't do

Ohio law lets the three elected commissioners hire an administrator to oversee county departments such as welfare, personnel and building inspections.

"You've got 860,000 citizens who transmit (ideas) to three commissioners who transmit to one administrator," former Commissioner Tom Neyer says. "And his job is to get it right and translate that to (up to) 6,400 employees."

The commissioners also have given Krings the power to hire and fire the staff of those departments, and sign off on purchases of up to $25,000.

However, unlike the CEO of a company, Krings has little control over some of the biggest county departments, such as the courts, sheriff's department, engineer's office and auditor's office. Those areas are run by independently elected officials who chiefly deal with Krings when they have to ask the commissioners for money. Many describe those dealings as friendly, and the administrator as a consensus-builder.

Hamilton County Administrator David Krings' compensation goes beyond his $179,636 base salary:

If he's fired or forced to resign - with or without cause - he gets three months' notice. He also gets 18 months' pay and 12 months' health benefits, plus an additional month of each for each year he is with the county. The severance pay now adds up to $434,120.

His new contract gives him an extra $10,320 in salary related to his automobile use and general business expenses, but at the same time says the money is "neither reimbursement nor an allowance." Auditor Dusty Rhodes has objected to the practice, saying in a letter to commissioners this week that it attempts to "deceive the taxpayers of Hamilton County by disguising compensation."

He's allowed to cash in up to 10 days of unused vacation a year, for about $6,900.

The county pays Krings' share of his Public Employees Retirement System payments as well as its own. It also pays 15 percent of Krings' salary into a second retirement fund.

Krings gets an annual bonus of 1 percent to 2 percent of his salary. His last one, given in October, was $3,488.08.

He will be credited with 105 hours of vacation time when he leaves the county.

He gets free parking.

Cindi Andrews

"I can't speak highly enough of him," Sheriff Si Leis says. "He'll listen to you, although that doesn't mean he always agrees. He just has the knack inborn in his character to work with people."

Worth a $434,120 parachute?

"He's a very valuable asset to the county," the sheriff says. "I'm not second-guessing or criticizing."

Some budget processes have gone less smoothly than others.

Probate Judge Wayne Wilke successfully sued the county in 2000 to get his full budget request after the commissioners cut his 1998 and 1999 budgets. The Ohio Supreme Court said the commissioners cannot refuse a court's reasonable budget request.

It boiled down to a power struggle, Wilke says now.

"They don't understand we're a separate branch of government," he says. "(Krings) had a point of view and I had a point of view. I don't know if his point of view was his or the commissioners'. ... I would say it was probably a combination."

Paul Brown Stadium

Obviously, the biggest public relations nightmare in Krings' 10-year tenure has been the one the commissioners can't wake up from: the missteps involved in the lease and construction of Paul Brown Stadium. The perception that the county struck a bad deal with the ever-losing Bengals, combined with $51 million in construction overruns, cost ex-Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus his job in 2000.

Commissioner John Dowlin, who justifies Krings' salary and benefits by calling him the CEO of Hamilton County, says the administrator was only "the messenger boy" on the stadium contract. He will do whatever any two commissioners tell him to.

Bedinghaus recalls it a little differently, saying he and Krings were part of a county negotiating team that also included three outside experts. The problem, he says, was that circumstances put the county at a disadvantage from the get-go.

"Dave was an important part of the team," says Bedinghaus, a friend. "He put his heart and soul into that project, which was outside the purview of any of his peers across the country."

Regardless of Krings' role, if he's the CEO of the county the buck should stop with him, Rhodes says. Krings could have pushed the commissioners to create a stadium authority to oversee the lease and construction, as was suggested at the time, the auditor says.

"It's bothersome that he's not held to the same standards as the rest of us," Rhodes says.

Rhodes, a Democrat who has had several run-ins with the mostly GOP commissioners, gives Krings a B- or C+ for his performance.

Not bad, but worth a $434,120 parachute?

"Nobody is worth the money," Rhodes says. "The position isn't worth the money. It's over the top."

The invisible man

But the public's lingering bitterness over the Bengals deal doesn't seem to have stuck to Krings. Nothing seems to have stuck to Krings.

It's a stark contrast to former Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey, who finally resigned in 2001 after years of public second-guessing by his nine bosses on City Council. Maybe it's that Krings only has to count to two instead of five.

Or maybe, Shirey says, it's that city government gets more attention because it's easier for people to understand.

"Everybody knows who provides police and fire services and the parks," he says. "They don't see how county government affects their everyday lives."

Krings disputes that notion, pointing to the sheriff's department as one comparable service. However, many other county departments, such as Job & Family Services and MRDD, provide a confusing mix of state- and federally mandated services that affect only part of the population.

"It's actually a much bigger government all around, you just don't see it," says Scott Greenwood of the American Civil Liberties Union. In fact, it's twice as big, with a $2.19 billion budget for 2003, compared to about $1 billion for Cincinnati.

Krings? Totally invisible, Greenwood says. A little more proactive leadership might have kept the county out of legal trouble on several occasions, he says, including a consent decree issued against the county over the misuse of race in adoption and foster care cases.

But Neyer says invisibility is a good thing. "I think the less you hear about a county administrator the more effective that person probably is, and David is a very low-key individual," he says.

Krings says he strives for "quiet efficiency." The things he's most proud of are not splashy things: the creation of an ethics review program; a good grade for the county's professionalism from Governing magazine; the people he has hired.

Does he think he's worth a $434,120 parachute?

"I do everything I can to be worth the money I'm paid," Krings says. "I'm grateful for it."


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