Our Views: Rock County's Craig Knutson deserves salute for solid reign

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

It’s obvious from the many letters we’ve published this week that elections are the focus of many Rock County residents. With Democrats running without Republican opposition, Tuesday’s votes will all but decide who will serve as our next county sheriff and clerk of courts.

Residents, however, should not overlook the fact that we ushered in a new era of county government this week. Craig Knutson’s last day after 35 years of county service—the past 30 as administrator—was last Friday. Josh Smith, his assistant from 2005-2010, has taken the leadership reins at the courthouse.

It’s remarkable that months and even years can pass between big county controversies. Uproars over such issues as a new fire station, street maintenance and sidewalks simmer at Janesville’s City Hall. The city council and the Janesville School Board spend much time debating staffing levels and higher taxes and fees.

Meanwhile, the budget process under Knutson often sailed smoothly. It’s even more remarkable if you consider the scope of county government. We’re talking about sheriff’s patrols and snowplowing, courts and conservation, the 4-H fair and a new nursing home. The county cares not just for the elderly but the poor and disabled, the mentally ill and children needing protective services. Costs of these human services keep escalating. With a 2014 budget of nearly $192 million, the county serves all these roles and more with hundreds fewer full-time workers than in 2000.

The county’s sales tax eases budgeting. Still, that revenue rises and falls like rough seas. Knutson wisely applied conservative estimates of those dollars in his budgets, earmarking much for capital projects such as upgrades at UW-Rock County and the jail. Pour all sales tax revenues into operational expenses, as many counties do, and Rock County would struggle.

It may have helped that Knutson was no outsider. He grew up on a family farm near Clinton. Besides raising crops, the family obviously raised a boy with common sense and a strong work ethic.

In a Gazette story July 28, Knutson told reporter Catherine W. Idzerda that his management style involved treating board members with respect, providing them with information, uniting all stakeholders and letting people do their jobs. His methods built trust. He presented clear information to help the board make reasoned decisions as county government spawned many quiet success stories. Besides that attractive new nursing home, another success during Knutson’s reign was enactment of the countywide 911 dispatch center.

No wonder his retirement announcement in January provoked gasps and groans from board members. As he leaves, his long tenure, steady hand and dedicated service deserve our salute.

The Gazette Editorial Board has yet to meet Smith but will do so in the coming months. In the meantime, we hope that under Knutson’s tutelage, Smith gained valuable insight that will help him keep steering county government through calm waters.

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