Decades ago my family and I moved to Rochester after I was recruited for a private sector job. When I needed to find a different job, I was disappointed at the time that the only one I could find was working for Olmsted County.
I had been trained by my prior employers to disrespect government and its workers. I had audited financial statements and prepared taxes for an international accounting firm, and the Internal Revenue Service was the adversary. My training ran deep. I read in the Wall Street Journal, on a regular basis, that government was the problem rather than the solution.
But I needed a job; I swallowed hard and resolved to not stay more than two years. I didn't want to look like I bounced from job to job, and two years seemed like a long time to 32-year-old me.
As I prepare for retirement on May 31, I'd like to ruminate about what I learned in the 33 years I stayed with Olmsted County.
First, government isn't "them." It is us. When someone says government makes them do something, or they don't agree with government, what they mean is they don't agree with what the majority of people have decided. Yeah, the decisions can be messy or wrong, or maybe only what is necessary when a bunch of people decide to live near each other.
We are mostly lucky to live in a democracy. Anyone who complains about government has the right to run for election and make the rules we choose to live by. People who choose to complain but not actively participate in the governance have made their choice. The great philosopher Neil Peart once said, "If you choose to not decide, you still have made a choice."
The people who work for government must do what elected officials tell them to do. When government moves slowly, or in a less than optimal way, it probably is because the elected people who make the decisions reached a compromise. You know what they say about compromises -- you know it's a good one if no one is satisfied. Another wise person once said "a giraffe is a horse designed by a committee."
Our choices are: to be glad that someone made a decision, to run for office to make better decisions or to move away to a place more to our liking. Sometimes government makes decisions that save our lives and we are glad we chose to live where we did. Mr. Freedom on the open prairie may not be found until his bones are bleached by the sun. Life really is a series of compromises.
What I found in my 33 years at Olmsted County after working nine years in the private sector is that government workers are just as intelligent and hard-working as private-sector workers. The county is surprisingly less political (politics defined as how people work with each other and establish hierarchies) than the private international firm I worked for. Government rules aren't more convoluted than the privacy notice I get in my bank statement once per year.
I also found I like what Olmsted County does for the community, and I felt good about being a part of that. It feels good to know that a child who was neglected and/or abused was found and helped by dedicated people who are willing to do very unpleasant jobs. The community functions because of services provided by government that we can't or won't each do on our own.
This community functions really well.
Finally, I challenge you to find a more cost-effective way to provide the basic services that government provides. When you gain access to the over 500 miles of roads and highways the county maintains for $46 per person per year, and the snow is plowed, the ditches mowed, the damaged stop signs replaced and the potholes filled, you got a lot. Each of our services is much lower in cost than most people understand.
It was an accident and a temporarily perceived misfortune that I wound up at Olmsted County. Life is mysterious. It turned out to be wonderful misfortune. I have worked with wonderful people who deliver good service every day.
I think government hits the mark more often than we are given credit for. Open information laws make it a lot easier to write and report about government than the big private employer down the block who doesn't have to reveal anything.
Thank you for letting me be part of the community that has been so wonderful to serve for 33 years.
Robert M. Bendzick lives in Rochester and has been Olmsted County's chief financial officer since December 1983.