NEW PORT RICHEY — Mike Nurrenbrock came to Pasco County in 1982, just three months after a new administration took over a scandal-ridden government.
He was one of two people recruited from the city of New Port Richey by newly installed County Administrator John Gallagher. During an introductory meeting, a county commissioner asked, "Is this the numbers guy or the hatchet guy?"
Luckily, he was the numbers guy.
Nurrenbrock, the longtime county budget director and Gallagher's closest adviser, will retire next July after 30 years in county government.
"He's the financial guru for putting our budget together," said commission chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, who was first elected in 1984. "He is really the go-to guy. He can rattle off all those facts and figures and numbers in his head."
Pasco will lose his intimate knowledge of the $1 billion annual budget, but it also loses half of a two-person team that guided county government over the past three decades.
"John Gallagher has a tough job," said Ray Gadd, a former assistant schools superintendent who served with Nurrenbrock on the Development Review Committee. "But Mike Nurrenbrock's made his job easier by being as competent as he is. John would have to feel like he has lost his right arm."
Often people approach Nurrenbrock for feedback before taking an idea to Gallagher. Most of these conversations go something like, "You tell me how John's going to react." When the person comes back, Nurrenbrock's read was usually right.
"Mike's always been the sounding board because he knows me," Gallagher said.
The two men showed their close working relationship during an interview last week, constantly razzing each other and finishing each other's sentences. "Thirty years," Gallagher said. "This (interview) could take days."
An Ohio native, Nurrenbrock earned his bachelor's degree in accounting from Miami University in Ohio. After college, he moved to New Port Richey to live closer to his brother and spent a total of four years in two private accounting firms. Then he worked another four years as New Port Richey's budget director. When he left that job, the city had bigger budget reserves than the county.
When he took over the county's Office of Management and Budget, he spent many long nights and Sunday afternoons getting to know the staff and the budget. Over the years, he was a key part in crafting several multimillion dollar projects such as a bond issue to build parks and the resource recovery center in Shady Hills.
"He made sure they were done correctly," Gallagher said. "And nothing ever blew up."
Nurrenbrock, 60, said he decided to leave next year, when his tenure allows him to retire with medical insurance coverage until he reaches Medicare age. He said he doesn't have any firm plans for how he'll spend his free time. An avid Rays fan, he can now catch more afternoon games in his season ticket seats just above the first-base dugout.
He says he's too old for it now, but Nurrenbrock used to burn all of his vacation days working part-time at National Hot Rod Association races. He also recalls seeing the Who in concert when both he and the band were young. Other favorites include Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne.
Nurrenbrock blends the caution of a budget director fearing the next tax shortfall with a dry wit that can sneak up on you at public meetings.
"Sometimes you've got to listen closely to what he's saying, but he's a hoot," Hildebrand said.
That combination was on display at a recent workshop when Nurrenbrock gave commissioners sobering news about prospects for an economic recovery. "My presentation is going to start out slow and then fizzle out altogether," he said.
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Nurrenbrock also can have a bit of a temper.
A former budget staffer once told a prospective employee what Nurrenbrock is like as a boss.
"When you see him coming down the hall and he has that look on his face, get out of the way," he recalled her saying. "But the good news is it'll be over in two minutes."
He credits his wife, Melissa, and son Joe with helping him mellow out over the years.
Gallagher jokes: "It takes me longer to wind him up."
Nurrenbrock has been the county's point man during numerous bruising budget battles with the Sheriff's Office. Each year, commissioners must approve the sheriff's budget, which takes up roughly half of the county's general fund and can compete with public services such as parks and libraries.
Take his first sheriff budget fight, when John Short was the county's top cop. The two sides were $357,000 apart on Short's budget. (Nurrenbrock still recalls the figure.)
Nurrenbrock found a $20,000 error in Short's accounting and took that to a commission meeting. Short gave his presentation, then the board took a five-minute break. Nurrenbrock was set to go next. Before he could start, a commissioner said, "I make a motion to give the sheriff everything he wants." The vote was 5-0.
Nurrenbrock stormed up to his office, launched a book across the room and left early to sulk in his apartment. "I was pretty mad," he said.
But former sheriffs come away from those fights with a measure of respect for Nurrenbrock.
"It never got personal," recalled former Sheriff Lee Cannon. "I always knew I could call Mike, and he would be 100 percent up front and honest about it. I never had to worry about him going behind my back or anything. That's all anyone can expect from a person."
Added Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who presented budget requests during his 10 years as Pasco undersheriff: "In a professional way he was very tough. He was very well-prepared."
Even during this year's relatively sanguine budget process, Nurrenbrock e-mailed a series of pointed questions asking Sheriff Chris Nocco to justify the need for $1.6 million for 23 new positions.
Commissioners tout Pasco as a place that aggressively cut its property tax rate for several years during the boom times. That means they didn't have to cut as much in recent years. Nurrenbrock's favorite chart shows that because of drops in property values, exemptions and the county's tax rate cuts, a $120,000 home is charged slightly less in county property taxes today than in 1995.
Gallagher says the biggest thing he'll miss is the confidence that Nurrenbrock has earned.
"Anybody can add and subtract," Gallagher said. "But to receive the trust from county commissioners and me — you can always take to the bank that his work is accurate. You don't have to go back and say, 'You sure? You sure?' "
Former Commissioner Sylvia Young once gave the ultimate compliment to Nurrenbrock and his Office of Management and Budget. She told the sheriff during one budget meeting: "If OMB says that's the number, then that's the number. Move on."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.