“Last year was very stressful,” admits county administrator Bob Guenzel. “I worked more than I’d ever worked, and I had trouble sleeping. My wife said I didn’t talk in my sleep, I yelled.”

His nightmare scenario: a projected $30 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. The prospect of cutting services was especially painful to Guenzel, who believes in “using the government to make life better.” As a U-M student, he was inspired by John Kennedy–he was at the Michigan Union the night the future president proposed the Peace Corps–and Lyndon Johnson, who introduced the Great Society at Guenzel’s commencement in 1964. Guenzel attacked the deficit with his trademark blend of idealism and pragmatism.

Administrator since 1994, Guenzel held an exhausting series of town hall meetings to persuade the county’s 1,370 employees–81 percent unionized–to give up a scheduled 3 percent pay raise and take eight unpaid furlough days this fiscal year, effectively a 3 percent pay cut. “We solved [the budget] with the people thinking more of the organization than of themselves,” Guenzel says.

“One of the hallmarks of Bob’s leadership is his expertise in dealing with labor-management issues,” says former board of commissioners chair Jeff Irwin. “Through years of bargaining, he’s earned the employees’ respect and trust.”

“I was especially glad he was here when the economy went south,” says current chair Rolland Sizemore. “I have to give Bob and his staff credit: he brought the whole county in, and we all worked together.”

Irwin and Sizemore are Democrats, but the praise for Guenzel is bipartisan. “If you look at the total career,” says Republican commissioner Mark Ouimet, “he’s provided very strong leadership throughout. He’s a very caring and forthright person, and he cares about the employees and the quality of service. It’s been a great pleasure working with him.”

Guenzel’s persuasive powers haven’t always worked. After the county jacked up its fees for local police patrols, three townships sued to overturn the increase. But there, too, he prevailed: the townships lost their final appeal in early March. Ypsilanti Township now owes the county $2 million, mostly for policing fees it underpaid during the litigation.

Guenzel, sixty-nine, won’t be around to collect the money: he’s retiring on May 14. His handpicked successor is his current deputy, Verna McDaniel.

McDaniel, fifty-nine, has worked for the county for twenty-eight years. “My most important job is to follow the priorities the board of commissioners set,” she says. “The biggest challenge is making sure we stay fiscally sound and shoring up the employees so they feel motivated to do a good job.”

In McDaniel’s view, “the role of the county administrator is to lead and direct and manage, to collaborate and cooperate and bring everybody together to make a better community. Bob has been very successful at this. He created a foundation for progressive government, and he’s leaving a very strong legacy of working with others.”

“Verna has worked closely with Bob for a long time,” says Ann Arbor commissioner Leah Gunn. “They are very much on the same wavelength: they both see government as a noble enterprise.”