ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County Manager Tom Zdunek – who started his career by quitting college to take a job climbing telephone polls – plans to retire this summer after 45 years in business and government.
Zdunek took over as county manager in 2011 after a nepotism scandal in the prior administration.
He leaves now with praise from county commissioners – on both sides of the aisle – as a “steady hand” who brought stability to the organization.
But challenges remain.
The county faces a tight budget, squeezed by investment losses in the treasurer’s office and escalating jail costs. The county has already approved a tax increase and tapped its discretionary reserves to help weather the storm.
The county also is examining its relationship with the University of New Mexico Hospital, which receives property tax revenue; considering an enormous master plan for the Santolina development on the West Side; and preparing to launch new mental- and behavioral-health programs backed by a new tax.
County commissioners said they haven’t yet discussed how to approach the search for a new manager.
“Someone with a good business background or organizational background is vital,” County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins said in an interview.
Commissioner Wayne Johnson said he hopes the commission can “find someone who would be able to take the county to the next level – who’s really ready to shepherd the county through some really tough financial times.”
Zdunek is paid $158,000 a year. His contract expires June 30, and he said he will suggest a two-month extension to help with the transition.
Zdunek, who turns 65 next month, said he wants time to travel and enjoy his family, which includes two daughters and four granddaughters. He said he’s been talking to his wife, Janet, about retirement since early last year.
His office is often dotted with his grandchildren’s artwork.
Zdunek joined the county in 2002 after a career at Qwest, the phone company later acquired by CenturyLink.
He took over as county manager four years ago, succeeding Thaddeus Lucero, at a time insiders often described the county as a family. Promotions came from within.
Zudnek, however, has hired many of his department heads and other executives after national searches, frequently tapping people outside county government.
He says now that he was just looking for a “good blend of folks.”
Hart Stebbins said Zudnek “brought integrity and professionalism and a strategic vision to Bernalillo County that has been really important in moving us forward.”
It hasn’t always been smooth.
A female county employee filed a complaint last year that said Zdunek made her “extremely uncomfortable” by touching and massaging her shoulder, among other allegations.
Zdunek apologized. On Thursday, he said it wasn’t connected to his leaving now.
“I regret the blemish, for the 45 years of service I’ve had,” he said. “You can’t fix that.”