Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson wasn’t completely sold at first on the idea of sending a county employee, Jessica Pence, to college.
Almost a year later, however, Robertson said he’s happy commissioners agreed to spend up to $40,000 on tuition and books to groom Pence to someday be the county’s chief financial officer.
In return, Pence, 30, agreed to work for the county for at least five years after earning her credentials. The county could seek to get the money back if she drops out of school or leaves the county early.
“After looking at everything, I now think it was a wise decision,” Robertson said.
The unusual arrangement stemmed from the county’s struggles to replace CFO Sandee Correll. She retired more than a year ago but has returned to work part time after the county failed several times to find a permanent replacement.
The county solicited applications six times. Commissioners thought they had solved the problem early last year when Richard Arrow, a retired auditor-controller for Marin County, Calif., took the job. Arrow, whose family remained in California, resigned after only four months.
With no other qualified candidates available, the county talked Correll into returning on a part-time, contract basis. At the same time, it contacted several accounting firms to see if they could provide budget management services, but that was beyond their expertise, Robertson said.
Officials looking for a solution proposed paying the costs for Pence, the county’s budget and tax supervisor, to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting and obtain certification as a public finance officer, a legal requirement for being a county’s chief financial officer.
Robertson said he was eventually persuaded to send Pence to college because the county’s uncertain finances made it difficult to attract qualified applicants.
Because of that same financial uncertainty, some people have questioned whether the investment is wise.
Roseburg resident Jennifer Stratton questioned whether it was prudent to commit to such an unusual expense when departments are being asked to cut spending.
Stratton, who said she’s acquainted with several county employees, said she was concerned that the plan developed for Pence was never discussed in public. Nor were other employees who might have a similar background approached to see if they had any interest in going to school and obtain the education Pence is receiving at county expense, Stratton said.
“There’s lots of people who might have been interested,” Stratton said. “To bury this upset me.”
Robertson and fellow Commissioner Susan Morgan say that with the additional education, Pence will become a more valuable employee even if she doesn’t succeed Correll, who earned $92,107 annually as CFO.
“This is a management decision we made that’s in the best interests of the county,” Morgan said. “Jessica is very bright, and she works very hard.”
Oregon Association of Counties spokesman Eric Schmidt said he hadn’t heard of any other county that has made a similar arrangement.
He said many counties, especially the 18 counties with timberlands that are part of the Oregon and California Railroad trust lands, have found it increasingly difficult to find qualified department heads because of the uncertain funding.
“There aren’t a lot of people who are applying for those jobs,” he said.
Pence has spent nearly six years with the county, working her way up through the ranks to her current position. Since last May, she has carried a full load of classes at Northwest Christian University in Eugene while continuing to work full time at her position, which pays $54,128 annually.
Pence, who grew up in Roseburg and now resides in Rice Hill, said she’s had a long interest in government service and took a pay cut when she was hired as a payroll clerk in 2007. She previously worked at North River Boats, Oregon First Community Credit Union and for a marketing firm.
She said she’s excited by the opportunity she’s been given and said the arrangement will allow her to be a more valuable asset for the county.
“I love my job. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here,” Pence said.
Before she can be considered for chief financial officer, Pence must pass five tests administered by the Chicago-based Government Finance Officers Association. The certification is required for anyone serving as a county finance head who is not a certified public accountant.
Pence faces a grueling grind. She works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the courthouse, then heads home to Rice Hill to study for the 12-credit load she’s taking at the university. She’s also raising a 13-year-old daughter.
“I’m going to school full time and working full time,” she said. “I try to give it my all.”
At Umpqua Community College, Pence completed 70 college credits, nearly half of what she needed to complete a bachelor’s degree, leaving her with two years of work in her major to complete her degree. She began her studies at Northwest Christian in May, taking courses online. Pence has only had to drive to Eugene four times, to participate in classes. She plans to take classes throughout the academic year and during summer term and finish next year.
Pence is required to provide the county with grade transcripts every term, along with the results of the certification tests from the Government Finance Officers Association.
She earned a 3.84 grade point average in the fall. Overall, she has carried a 3.7 GPA during her time at Northwest Christian.
She said she is working as hard as she can so that she doesn’t disappoint the county officials who have placed their trust in her.
“I have a lot on the line here professionally and personally,” she said.
Douglas County has struggled before to replace a department head. The county called back Jim Bruce, a retired human resources director, after another director left after only a few months on the job. Many people who would have been qualified for the job may have gotten scared off, Robertson said, because of uncertainty over the county’s long-term financial health.
Michael Kurtz, the county’s former deputy health director, applied for the position and was promoted. He may have lacked direct human resources experience but had dealt with administrative duties and personnel issues at the health department and was able to be trained in the areas he didn’t have expertise, Robertson said.
“You have to be flexible enough to keep the best and brightest on your staff and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Robertson said.
While commissioners have not locked themselves in to hiring Pence as chief financial officer, that’s their intent, Robertson and Morgan said.
“Our anticipation is that she would become CFO, but it’s not guaranteed,” Robertson said.
He said the county will benefit from Pence’s added knowledge and skills.
“We were looking for options and this was the best we could come up with,” Robertson said. “It will probably end up saving us money.”
• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.