Talon News - Good Local News



January 4, 2019

New County CEO-Mike Stark.

Photos & Story by David Edward Albright, TALON

After fourteen years with the County, Mike Stark assumed the top leadership position in San Juan County on January 1, 2019. Stark didn't foresee that he and his family would land here after earning a marketing degree from New Mexico State, then returning to the midwest. He first traveled out west to attend a college which offered both a business major and golf course management (one of only four in the nation). "That was the best thing that ever happened to me---got a good education and met my wife... I figured if I'm going to go chase my dreams---my passion---I better have a backup plan," he said regarding the business degree.

Mike and his wife Natalie, who went to high school in New Mexico, heard the Land of Enchantment calling after three years working in the golf business in Decatur, Illinois. "We fell in love with the community", he said about the people, climate and culture of the Four Corners. During stints as a golf pro with the San Juan Country Club, Pinon Hills Golf Course and various businesses with his wife, Stark made time to obtain an MBA. Married twenty-one years, the couple have two children, son Carson, 13, and daughter Makenna, 11.

Stark began with the County in 2006, as a Project Manager with the Executive Division. "I found it's funny how you find your passions...sometimes your passions change in life... I was always good with people, with customer service---I just didn't realize how passionate I was about being an integral part of the community and helping out. It became apparent to me that I really do like to help the citizens and to see our community really flourish and grow...it's really different than the for-profit sector."

About handling public funds, he said, "You've got to be able to balance the budget, manage the funds...to provide the tax-payers the best return on their investment. It's critical to have that focus...our budget this year is $129 million dollars...so we're responsible for a lot of dollars," Stark said. A major challenge he faces is "sustainability---so we can continue to provide the same level of service...with funding sources that are, at times, very constrained". The oil and gas industry downturn is affecting the tax base, along with the impending closure of the San Juan Generating Station. He said that with "very conservative fiscal management" of the budget they've been able to operate without "reducing the level of service". The other "big goal" it to "expand and diversify our economy".

Asked about how much impact the County Manager (formerly Chief Executive Officer) can have on economic decisions and direction, Stark said, "First and foremost...folks need to understand that our number one task is to implement the vision of our County Commission---our elected officials. So we take that vision and turn it into reality. We have the ability, hopefully with our elected officials, to craft policies that will help encourage investments from the outside world---here. He believes better marketing of the area is needed. "We have some great resources here in the County, particularly from the outdoor recreation perspective...we don't need to continue to be the nation's best-kept secret." He said that the need to market was not such an imperative in past years, when the economy was more "robust".

Stark believes if people visit this area and see what it offers they will say, "Oh my gosh, this is heaven on earth. Where do you find a climate like this, where do you find a stress-free drive to work...a great place to live, play---raise a family." About growing up in a suburb of Cinncinnati, and working in Decatur, Chicago, Houston and Albuquerque, he said, "So when you have those other experiences, you realize the quality of life here is really good...this is a great place to live---people need to figure that out."

Stark wants to help develop all types of industry, including alternative energy, "We can't be all things to everybody", but businesses like PESCO, now creating an additional 170 jobs, are proof that expansion in a challenged economy is possible. He said there are "other opportunities", such as renewable energy that should be explored. "One of the great things that we have available to us is that---depending on how things shake down with the generating station---today we have excess transmission capacity." Energy producers, whether it's natural gas or renewables, will find this highly attractive, he believes.

Moving to the top leadership position in the County was smooth for Stark---apparently nearly automatic---as Stark had the experience, track-record and obviously the confidence of the Commision, who made the decision. Stark said, "I think it was a combination of things...certainly when I was in my capacity of COO (Chief Officer of Operations)---based on my day-to-day responsibilities...and (my record) of successfully implmenting initiatives and projects. We believe very firmly in the County succession plan...for seamless transition and I believe the Commission does too." He believes serving as COO for the last seven years and working directly with the Commission establishes his "ability to carry out the duties of County Manager".

Mike is most proud of "taking projects from the ground up", mentioning a severe sewage problem in Kirtland about seven years ago, that actually started with a bomb threat from an extremely frustrated citizen. He took the lead role in securing funding for an environmental study, working directly with affected citizens and helping to remedy a dire situation, which threatened public safety and the San Juan River. "It's great when you're able to help out folks and to get a thank you...from residents (about 60 homeowners in unincorporated part of the county) who had no where else to turn." He has worked with and learned from three different County Managers and considers that "transfer of knowledge" one of his major attributes.

Stark's primary goals include the full implementation of the Commissions directives, moving forward with the behavioral health initiative, economic sustainability and being prepared for the next legislative session. To him a good leader "must listen and communicate effectively, inspire others to maximize their potential, have integrity, and be responsive to the needs of the citizens you serve". "I just want to say it's an honor and a privilege to serve as the next County Manager, (work with) the Commission, the employees and the citizens of San Juan County."


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