After 42 years of service supervising more than $783 million dollars worth of road and bridge improvements, Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer is set to retire Oct. 1.

Since 1974, Ruffer has worked in the county government at the head of the public works department and on multiple county appointed boards including, notably, the Mobile County Communications District — the governing body of the state’s first 911 system of which Ruffer was a founding member.

Ruffer remained on the MCCD board, as well as at least three others, until March 2015, when he stepped down over concerns that county employees holding those positions could present a conflict of interest. The Alabama Ethics Commission later clarified the matter, and Rufer was reappointed to the board of Mobile County Emergency Management Agency.

With his four decades of experience and insight and influence into several arms of county government and budgeting priorities, some referred to Ruffer as “the fourth commissioner.”

Earlier this week, the Commission recognized Ruffer’s service with a commendation of professional achievement and a reception well attended by the county and state officials he’s worked with over the years.

County Commissioner Connie Hudson with outgoing engineer Joe Rufer. (Mobile County)

County Commissioner Connie Hudson with outgoing engineer Joe Rufer. (Mobile County)

“Today is the day we all knew would eventually get here, but we really didn’t want to believe,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “[Joe Ruffer] is a man whose name has become synonymous with Mobile County engineering, and the impact that he’s had on Mobile County infrastructure is nothing less than phenomenal.”

In his tenure, Ruffer oversaw improvements to more than 2,600 roads and the construction of 35 bridges throughout the county, most of which were funded through the county’s “Pay As You Go” bonding program Ruffer is considered the “architect” of.

A graduate of Auburn University, Ruffer’s peers in the field of civil engineering have named him Alabama’s County Engineer of the Year on two occasions. In 2006, he was also recognized as the national County Engineer of the Year.

Accepting the commendation, Ruffer said seeing projects he’s helped develop over the past 40 years still standing today is a reward in and of itself.

“Being a civil engineer is a wonderful occupation for a person to have because you get to see all the good things that you do, and whether anybody says ‘thank you’ or not, it doesn’t make a lot of difference,” he said. “You get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.”

Rufferwent on to deflect some of his praise back to his employees in the public works department, saying “the government is no better than its employees.”

“From the lowest level employee in public works all the way to the top, we have to have that foundation,” he added. “Just like a building, if the foundation wasn’t there, it would crumble, and so would the county government.”

While the reception for Ruffer was warm, finding his replacement — even in an interim capacity — has proven to be a difficult task for commissioners. With a 2015 salary exceeding $177,000, Rufer will retire as the county’s highest paid employee, though that level of compensation is set and partially subsidized at the state level.

The commission has already agreed to bring in outside help in the search for a full-time replacement and to perform a review of the engineering department’s current structure.

“The action that was approved was to have our staff move forward in identifying a consulting firm that can help us in looking at our current organizational structure and determining if there’s anything that needs to be tweaked, changed or improved based on best practices,” Hudson said. “I don’t know that we need to jump in so quickly that we lose an opportunity to make improvements, if there are improvements to be be made.”

There have been rumors of Ruffer preparing for retirement for more than a year, but it’s been known to the Commission now for several months. That’s one reason why Commissioner Merceria Ludgood was eager to move the hiring process forward.
If there was a motion to hire a consultant today, Ludgood said she’d be against it.

“I can pick a county engineer from the people who we have on the list now. So, I don’t have a need for a consultant, but, if that’s what the commissioners decide to do, we need to do it sooner rather than later,” Ludgood said. “We need to have that person in place, and I’m sure our engineering department wants to know what’s going to happen going forward.”

On Sept. 26, commissioners said three current employees had applied to take Ruffer’s spot including Deputy Public Works Director Ricky Mitchell and Assistant County Engineer Bryan Kegley. The name of the third applicant was not disclosed at the public meeting.

However, with state law requiring a county engineer’s signature on many common documents, County Attorney Jay Ross urged the commission to appoint an interim replacement soon, though even that process has proved tricky.

Commission President Jerry Carl said he would have “a hard time” putting any of the current applicants in an interim position. As an alternative, Hudson proposed having Kegley and Mitchell both serve in the interim capacity — a proposal Ross and Ludgood said would create organizational issues.

“It just sends a clear message. Somebody has got to be the person who’s ultimately responsible. So, the idea of the two [interim engineers] just doesn’ sit well with me from an organizational standpoint,” Ludgood said. “I’ve never seen anyting with two heads that didn’t turn out to be a monster.”

While the interim decision is still up in the air, Carl said the public works staff is capable of operating on “cruise control” for the time being. However, with October on the horizon, it could still be several weeks before a consultant is even selected and the search for Ruffer’s permanent replacement can start.