WHETHER DISCUSSING his hobby of painting with acrylics or the complexities of the county’s budget, Marin’s county administrator, Matthew Hymel, speaks without hesitation. The lighthearted Hymel likes to get right to the point.
Now 52, Hymel has been administrating, aka effectively running, Marin County for over 13 years. His job is to implement decisions made by the elected five-person county board of supervisors. His tasks include, among other things, preparing and overseeing the county’s $550 million annual budget, supervising administration regarding the county’s 2,000 employees and providing county supervisors with research, information and recommendations. For that he is paid, including benefits, $357,400 annually.
Hymel was born in Western Pennsylvania and moved to California in his late teens, then graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1988. Following that, he earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Before coming to Marin he worked as a budget analyst in Sacramento and for the City of Oakland and served two years as budget director for San Francisco then-Mayor Willie Brown. He and his family live in the San Rafael community of Terra Linda; one daughter and a son are away at college and one son is in high school. His wife, Dara, teaches third grade. By his own admission, the county administrator prefers to keep a low profile locally.
You became Marin’s county administrator at the tender age of 38. What helped prepare you to assume such a responsibility?
I worked for two years as a budget analyst for Henry Gardner, then the city manager for Oakland. Then I moved over to the controller’s office in San Francisco when Willie Brown first became mayor. He’d gone through two or three budget directors; then I helped his staff finish a budget and he selected me to be his next budget director. So here I was, 31 years old, a young kid with a $6 billion budget. Those were pretty interesting times; it was a great experience. Willie Brown was very smart and he would constantly test you. So that was my first big break. But my passion has always been nonpartisan policy analysis. I’m fine with the policymakers giving the direction; then I’ll create the programs to go with that policy. Even my job with the controller’s office in San Francisco was nonpartisan.
Did attending Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government contribute significantly to your career?
Yes, definitely. Every day I use something I learned at the Kennedy School. They have a case study methodology and I was always interested in public sector economics. I think that’s partly because I grew up in the Rust Belt region, where unemployment was usually around 20 percent when I was there. So the idea of how government can help people get back on their feet has always intrigued me.
Is Marin your proverbial steppingstone to bigger and better things, or are you content staying here for a while?
Marin is a better fit for me than, say, San Francisco, where the politics are like a sport. A person can always go to a bigger county, a bigger job. But I’m strategic by nature; I like to have an understanding of where the team is going. I feel that Marin is a wonderful community to live and work in; I have a great board to work with, and Marin is large enough to have complex challenges yet small enough that you can accomplish things. And I’m always learning. So to me, an offer of a bigger job in a bigger county is not very compelling. I feel very fortunate to be where I am.
County and city administrators often get stereotyped as a “projects guy,” a “people person” or a “number cruncher.” What do you consider yourself to be?
You know, I think most people would consider me a budget person, as that’s been my core role. But while being in this position for the last 13 years, I’ve learned I need to broaden that. So dealing with people and creating a work environment where people can do their best work is a big part of my job. So I need to stretch myself in that area.
We hear a lot now about unfunded pension liabilities. From your point of view, where does Marin County stand on this important issue?
Pensions are a big issue, especially in Marin. Ours is a slow-growth county; our population has not grown substantially in the last 30 or 40 years; we now have more retirees than we have active employees. So it is especially important that we deal with our pension obligations aggressively. And over the last six years we’ve reduced our unfunded liabilities by over $200 million; one of the big things we’ve done over the past 10 years is make sure our retiree health program is more solvent. We now have a trust fund where we’ve set aside over $100 million for our future obligations, including $10 million from investment earnings. So we’ve taken a lot of steps to reduce the trajectory of our unfunded liabilities, but it is still a serious issue that we will be dealing with well into the future.
What are the county’s unfunded liabilities?
The county’s unfunded pension liabilities are about $600 million in total. One of the ways you know a county is well run financially is its bond rating, and Marin is one of a handful of counties in California that has a AAA bond rating. One of the reasons we have that rating is we’ve taken steps to control our unfunded liabilities; people are comfortable that if they loan us money, we’re going to pay them back. In summary, I’d say pension liabilities are a serious challenge we need to work at — and we are working at it.
While you’re overseeing a $550 million budget and administering the jobs of more than 2,000 employees, what, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
You know, I realize I’m working with a team that’s also grappling with these issues. But there are always a handful of problems in any one week that I’m confronted with, and sometimes in the middle of the night I’ll come up with a solution to them. So I’m fortunate that I can usually work problems out rather than worry about them. As I said, I’m always working with a team, so I try not to take it all on myself.
What are Marin County’s top three most pressing current challenges?
I think sea level rise would certainly be in the top three. So would our retiree obligations, because of the structure of Marin as a slow-growth county. And also in the top three would be emergency preparedness as in a wildfire or an earthquake. You only have to look at the North Bay fires to see how important that is. The county is fortunate in that our fire districts and emergency response teams work very well together. Probably our biggest challenge is to see that residents are prepared for that first 72 hours of a disaster, so we’re working hard on that.
What are Marin’s advantages in dealing with these challenges?
We have very high standards in Marin, so what we are trying to do is maintain those standards while addressing the issues that confront us. As the safety net for our community, our role is to help the disadvantaged; we have a responsibility to make sure everyone in our community has the opportunity to live a high-quality life. Basically, the county’s mission is to have healthy, safe and sustainable communities. And there are so many advantages we have in meeting our challenges. Then of course there’s the wonderful climate and natural beauty of our communities, along with a great partnership with the Marin Community Foundation that helps us deal with things. As I said, Marin is big enough to deal with interesting issues, but small enough to see where the results of our work make a difference.
his article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Marin’s County Administrator Matthew Hymel“.