GRAND RAPIDS — The legal profession’s loss was a gain for Kent County taxpayers.
Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio, the chief financial officer for one of the most fiscally sound counties in the nation, almost went into law. In the mid-1970s, he was studying political science at Aquinas College and planning to pursue a law degree. But after he completed an internship in Plainfield Township, his career plan changed.
“It looked like a pretty interesting career choice. Plus, where I grew up in Wayne, the city manager had been there forever,” he said. “It looked like a pretty stable career.”
So off he went to Wayne State University to get a master’s degree in public administration. While there, he also got his first job in the business, serving as an administrative coordinator for Rockwood in Wayne County. Eventually, Delabbio became city manager of Rockford, a post he held for 11 years. Then in September 1995, he joined Kent County as the No. 2 finance officer, replacing Melinda Carlton in the top spot a few years later.
“I’m responsible for budget preparation, recommending and administering policies that are approved by the Board of Commissioners,” he said of his duties.
All in all, Delabbio has been in public management for 24 years. Later this year, he will celebrate his silver anniversary in a field that is often difficult to stay in for 25 months, let alone 25 years. And those who know him well won’t be surprised to learn that he still enjoys doing what he does.
“The best thing that I like about the job is no two days are alike. There is a lot of variety in the position. There is always an opportunity to problem-solve. And I think, just based on my personality, I like the fact that I don’t have to concentrate too long on one thing and then can move to another,” said Delabbio.
There are a couple of misconceptions about the county’s role in governing and the role its administrator plays in that process that Delabbio often has to clear up. Many people think that the county is similar to its counterparts in the cities and townships, but that’s not the case. Kent County doesn’t pass ordinances or do zoning like Grand Rapids does. Rather, the county fills the social role of local government, being more involved with health, justice and poverty issues than writing laws.
So it would follow that the role of a county administrator would also differ from that of a city manager.
“City managers have far more authority. Whereas a manager can go to a police chief or a fire chief and direct them to do something, and they will do it unless it’s illegal or unethical, in my case, I can’t go to the sheriff and tell him to do something. I have to sit down and talk with him about things and ask him to help me,” said Delabbio.
“It’s more of a facilitative role than a management-type role.”
One of those issues that Delabbio remains excited about is the opening of the new $60 million Justice Center. The 13-story building at Ottawa and Lyon is still set to open in September and will eliminate the crowded conditions that the county and city courts currently have at the Hall of Justice on Monroe Avenue. The project has gone smoothly and Delabbio gave full credit for that to Jim Leach, county director of facilities management.
“Jim has been with the county for about 23 years. He is an architect by training. He knows the technical aspects. He knows the history because he has been around for so long, and there is a great deal of trust that the Board of Commissioners has in him,” he said.
“It’s really been his baby, and because of his experience, skill and knowledge, it has really been a smooth process.”
The good-natured 47-year-old Detroit native, who turns 48 later this month, also holds a master of management degree from Aquinas in addition to his public administration degree. He met Connie, his wife, while attending Aquinas and they have three daughters: Juliette, Gina and Laurel.
When he’s not working Delabbio reads, both fiction and non-fiction. His favorite authors are John Grisham and Andrew Greeley.
“I love to read. I generally read several books at a time. It’s part of my personality. After I get done with one, I move to another. But my biggest vice is probably watching TV. I just veg-out,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, my wife is correcting me. She says I read and watch TV at the same time. I just got the new John Adams biography, but my oldest daughter (Juliette) grabbed it.”
He follows the Detroit Red Wings, calls the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament one of his favorite sporting events, loves movies and is a video and autograph collector. He added Mike Knuble’s signature to his collection when he met the former East Kentwood great, who now skates with the Boston Bruins, at the pro-am of the Farmer’s Insurance Charity Classic a few weeks ago.
As far as his future is concerned, Delabbio doesn’t see himself going anywhere. But he does see himself growing, career-wise, with his staff, and is committed to sticking around long enough to see the effect that his decisions have on county residents.
“I think there are enough challenges in Kent County that will keep me here for the rest of my career. One of the things that has always impressed me about some city and county managers is their length of stay, because the average tenure of managers is about five years. There are some anomalies like (GR City Manager) Kurt Kimball and others who spend more time in a community,” he said.
“And those are the managers that I seem to have the most respect for because it’s easy for a manager to come in, make changes, but not have to live with the decisions. I think it takes a lot to stick with and live with the decisions that you make,” he added. “I also felt that Rockford was city manager’s heaven. Quite frankly, I feel the same way about Kent County. I think it’s county administrator’s heaven.”