Walking the St. Louis County Board tightrope

Kevin Gray often jokes that he's just a "week-to-week" employee, an at-will worker who could be fired at the whim of the St. Louis County Board. He must be doing a pretty good job, however, because his week-to-week status has lasted five-and-a-ha...

Kevin Gray, St. Louis County administrator, talks Monday about how much he enjoys his job for all the challenges it offers. Gray is the longest-serving county administrator since St. Louis County moved to that form of government in 1987. Bob King /

Kevin Gray often jokes that he’s just a “week-to-week” employee, an at-will worker who could be fired at the whim of the St. Louis County Board.


He must be doing a pretty good job, however, because his week-to-week status has lasted five-and-a-half years.

Gray, hired in April 2009, has quietly become the longest-serving St. Louis County administrator since the county adopted the position, and a new form of county management, in 1987.

Before that, the seven elected county commissioners, many of whom had no financial background or experience, drafted and planned the county’s budget.


Under the administrator type of county management, the board hires the person to guide the county’s now massive
$320 million annual budget, which includes nearly $117 million from county taxpayers. The administrator also acts as the supervisor of all county institutions, departments and agencies, and of all non-elected department heads. Gray oversees 1,700 employees who serve 200,000 residents across 6,859 square miles.

The administrator is the only position hired directly by commissioners and, as Gray notes, serves at the board’s will. Joking aside, four commissioners of the seven could vote him out at any meeting, though there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon.

The county’s first administrator, Karl Nollenberger, lasted just over five years before taking a similar spot with the City of Duluth. But after Nollenberger, the county position turned over more frequently. That is, until Gray turned up in 2009.

“For me, it’s the perfect job. We’re involved in just about everything that affects people’s lives… from healthcare, human services, to roads to law enforcement,” Gray said. “It’s very exciting if you don’t mind being in a big job. And I like being in a big job.”

Gray, 59, earns $167,453 annually for that big job.

The former Minnesota Department of Transportation official has settled into a routine of managing the budget and staff while trying to keep the often flammable county board from burning itself.

Gray, a Biwabik native who graduated from Cloquet High School, has worked and succeeded at staying above the fracas when commissioners battle each other on divisive issues, like support for copper mining, whether to oppose the state’s marriage amendment, whether to support tighter state voter registration laws or even if the county should keep running its nursing home or turn it over to a private company.

In recent days, Gray has had to present county commissioners with his staff’s best-guess on where the budget will be for 2015. Gray has had to work with each commissioner to find their comfort zone for any tax increase or budget cuts. In the end, he brokered a compromise that will see a 2015 levy increase just under 3 percent.


This week, Gray also will moderate, often out of the limelight, as commissioners take sides on whether to sell or trade county land to a youth camp in Fredenberg Township, or instead donate the land to the township - a move that could force the camp out of existence. The last time that issue came up, one commissioner stormed out after the meeting, yelling at another as he walked.

“It’s my job to communicate with each commissioner. Each one represents a different point of view, different constituents,” Gray said. Some commissioners are far right on the political spectrum, some far left, Gray noted.

“It’s a political juggling act. But it’s an important component of what I do.”

For the most part, commissioners say, Gray has walked that tightrope well. He’s straightforward enough that commissioners trust his word and his judgment.

Gray, for example, led the county through the effort to sell the county-owned Chris Jensen nursing home, a philosophical battle between commissioners who wanted ongoing county control, and county employees, verses commissioners who wanted the home privately owned and operated.

“That’s the key, is that every one of us have a good relationship with Kevin. We don’t necessarily with each other, but we do with him… We all trust him,” said Frank Jewell, the commissioner who represents central Duluth.

Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing said Gray has done a good job of managing the ups and downs of state and federal aid while keeping an even keel.

There have been few layoffs since Gray came on board, and each of the seven annual budgets he’s had his fingerprints on, including the upcoming 2015 budget, have seen levy increases of under 3 percent, far below the statewide average and always below the rate of inflation. Levy increases just before Gray arrived ranged from 4 to 9 percent.


To be fair to his predecessors, Raukar notes, Gray has enjoyed relative stability by coming on after the worst of state and federal budget cuts, and after the county downsized its workforce by about 500 employees between 2002 and 2010.

“I think there’s a sense that Kevin communicates more with some commissioners than others. Then again some commissioners demand more of his time than others,” Raukar said. “He manages the budget well and that’s really his primary function. But he also manages the board well, too.”

Raukar, currently the board’s longest serving commissioner, said Gray is also assisted by a talented staff, especially Linnea Mirsch, deputy administrator for operations and budget, the county’s finance expert, and Gary Eckenberg, deputy administrator for governance and policy, a walking Wikipedia of county government facts and history.

“Kevin has done a good job, and he has some very good people around to help him.” Raukar said. “It’s been a pretty steady ship since he’s been here.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
What To Read Next
Get Local