With ND budget director retirement, some worry about losing institutional knowledge
BISMARCK — Years before she became the state budget director, Pam Sharp's time in the North Dakota Auditor's Office helped her understand the inner workings of government agencies.
"I liked public service," she said from her office on the fourth floor of the state Capitol. "But I decided that if I wanted to move up in state government, I needed a broader view of how state government works."
Thursday, Nov. 30, marked Sharp's last official day as director of the Office of Management and Budget before retirement, capping a three-decade career in state government that started in the Tax Commissioner's Office and ended with a challenging few years overseeing the state's budget during the Bakken oil boom and subsequent downturn.
Sharp's departure highlights a concern among some that losing her and other longtime state employees will drain government of the knowledge they've accrued over the years.
"I don't know that there's anybody, frankly, who understands the budgeting process in North Dakota better than (Sharp) does," said Nick Archuleta, president of the public employee and teacher union North Dakota United. "There is something to be said for institutional memory and past practices."
Among the 157 employees who were accepted for a buyout earlier this year were the Department of Human Services' chief financial officer, the Department of Financial Institutions commissioner and the director of fiscal management at OMB. That "voluntary separation incentive program" was introduced to help address recent state budget cuts.
The North Dakota Legislature authorized 307 fewer full-time equivalent positions this biennium in state government, excluding higher education. A cut position doesn't necessary mean somebody lost their job, however, as some positions may have been unfilled.
Gov. Doug Burgum has brought on a handful of new Cabinet members in his first year in office, several of whom had a primarily private sector background. That aligns with Burgum's own history as a businessman-turned-politician.
Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki called it both a "challenge and an opportunity to sort of infuse new talents and ideas into the organization," noting that existing staff can provide some continuity. He said the recent hiring of a "chief people officer" provides a chance to "adopt a more consistent statewide approach to succession planning."
About 12 percent of the 6,979 "classified" state employees — higher education is not included in that figure — are eligible for retirement, according to Becky Sicble, director of the human resource management services division at OMB. That's about the same portion as five years ago.
Arvy Smith, the former deputy health officer at the Department of Health who spent 36 years working for the state, said she was eligible to retire four years before taking a buyout this year. She wanted to be able to "comfortably retire and feel like I wasn't leaving the department in a bad spot."
"I had some internal thoughts about sustainability and institutional knowledge before I felt comfortable leaving," Smith said.
As for Sharp, she'll work in a temporary position to ease the transition to her successor. She acknowledged the next director could face a "big learning curve" depending on his or her background.
"I just want things to transition very smoothly," she said.
Recent budget cycles have been anything but smooth in North Dakota. After a recent surge of state revenue, lagging oil and farm commodity prices forced the state to tighten its belt. General fund spending peaked at almost $6.9 billion in 2013-15 before dropping to $4.3 billion this biennium.
Sharp said state leaders made the right budgetary decisions based on the information they had at the time.
"What we found out was that when the price of oil totally crashed, we weren't as insulated from that as we thought," she said. "I thought it was really important ... to just convey the seriousness of what was actually going on and certainly not try to sugarcoat anything."
Members of both political parties praised Sharp's work during challenging times.
"I know she's making sure that she's got somebody ready to take over for her, and we appreciate that," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. "But there's no question that we've lost some quality people that we relied on for years."
House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said it remains to be seen how departures like Sharp's affect agency operations.
"You certainly hope that your institutions are set up so that not everything rests on one or two people maintaining an office in perpetuity," he said. "I trust that we have great staff in the wings to fill in the void."