After more than 18 years with Ramsey County — including the last decade as county manager — Julie Kleinschmidt is calling it a career.
Kleinschmidt, 62, was the first woman appointed to the county’s top job when she was named manager in 2008, during the height of the Great Recession and in the midst of the housing market collapse. An accountant by trade, she had been Ramsey County’s finance director in the years leading up to the recession.
She will retire on July 31, with plans for family time and travel, and will be succeeded by her deputy manager, Ryan O’Connor. Kleinschmidt sat down Tuesday with the Star Tribune to talk about her tenure with the county and its future. The conversation has been edited for length.
Q: Why did you decide to retire now?
A: I thought it was the right time for me, personally, my family and the organization. I really felt like the organization was in a good place. This is the county’s planning year. So the new county manager can sit with the board and service teams and look at whether we’re getting the outcomes that we want and what adjustments we need to make.
Q: You were named county manager in the heart of the recession. Did you know how bad things were when you went for the job?
A: [laughs] I kind of knew what we were getting into, as well as you can. I truly felt I was the best person for the job at that time with my background. I just had a strong feeling that we were going to be really challenged balancing the needs of the community with our ability to pay. Businesses and residents rely on continuity and predictability, and so I knew we could steer through if we were really thoughtful.
Q: So what was the strategy? Did the county have to retreat, get thinner?
A: We absolutely did get thinner, but we were thoughtful. At the time a lot of places had mass layoffs. We had planned. We had reserves, and we judiciously spent those reserves and figured out a way to build them back to keep our credit rating. We absolutely had to work very hard to preserve our front-line staff. We had to focus on what our core business was.
Q: Once the crisis ended and property values grew again, what did you want to achieve? What are you proud of?
A: As the whole economy started to brighten, we started to build and we really turned to our community. We took an honest look at if we were really working with the community to understand how to get the outcome we all want. I’m really proud of that. Ours is such a diverse community — to do that, we all have to understand cultures other than our own.
Q: You’re talking about the push for [racial] equity? When did that start?
A: I’d say we’ve been building on that for several years. It’s not that people weren’t doing these things before. But in the last several years we have definitely had a blast of energy. Our board was ready, our staff was ready, our leadership was ready.
Q: As you get ready to leave, there are two major redevelopment projects in the works [the TCAAP site in Arden Hills and the riverfront site in downtown St. Paul, both owned and made shovel-ready by the county]. When do you think things are going to move?
A: I absolutely think we’re in a good position. The return on that investment for our community, for both those investments, we will realize for years and years to come.
Q: Most of the county’s teams and managers were hired or built by you. You hired Ryan O’Connor, who’s coming after you. How do you feel about things moving forward?
A: The county is in very good hands. I’m biased. I hired Ryan and promoted him, but he is absolutely what the organization needs. I’m excited for the energy he brings. I think he’s going to take the foundation of what we built and just blast off.