Jon Hopkins has been the Amador County General Services Administration (GSA) director since 2006. I talked with him last week about his background, what he does as GSA director, and what he wants businesses to know about working with the county.
Hopkins started his career with the California Department of Forestry, which today is called CalFire. After a stint in the military where he was injured and returned home, he started work in the construction industry. Hopkins also worked in a county program in the early 1980s that led the county to hire him as a building maintenance worker.
In the ’80s, Hopkins said, “I was a big nut for education.” He not only took courses at Delta College, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley, he graduated from CSU Sacramento with honors. What’s more, he obtained a teaching credential, a contactors license certification, and a procurement officer certification.
After graduation, Hopkins stayed with the county and moved up the ranks. By the mid-2000s, he was the deputy director of the General Services Administration (GSA) department. When the director retired in 2006, the Board of Supervisors made the easy decision to appoint Hopkins as GSA director.
Aside from the procurement officer certification that solidified his abilities as a purchasing agent, nothing in his education specifically prepared Hopkins to be a GSA director. “It’s not like when I went to school, I don’t think anybody aspires to be a GSA,” he laughed. “There’s not a big section in school about government. Government is its own animal, and no matter if you work for the federal, state, or local—and I’ve worked for all three—a lot of times there’s on-the-job training.”
One Job, Many Hats
Today Hopkins oversees about 50 people in 14 different divisions including real estate, animal control, the county airport, facilities, capital improvement, libraries, public defender, IT, and economic development.
Hopkins describes his job as four roles in one. First, he guides and coaches other departments about how to create bids and contracts. He spends a lot of time mentoring his staff. He works on specific projects that require his attention. And he deals with members of the public.
All this, Hopkins said, is the biggest benefit of his job. “I am never bored. I’m always helping people.”
Some of those specific projects have been added to his plat just recently. There is a new jail project funded largely by the Board of State and Community Corrections that will establish a new 40-bed addition to the jail. Hopkins is also working to get a new undersheriff up to speed and establishing a medical isolation tent in the jail to deal with COVID-19 cases.
That tent is only one of the COVID tasks Hopkins is working on. Hopkins and his facilities staff have had to learn what personal protective equipment (PPE) is required and how to disinfect an area when someone has been exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19. The county received $3.8 million to buy PPE throughout the county, and that is managed by Hopkins and his purchasing staff. The biggest challenge with managing PPE, he said, is “trying to get the best bang for our buck with the taxpayers.”
And the daily administrative work of the county continues. The day before our interview, Hopkins said he stayed after hours to resolve an issue with a property owner. Just before our interview started, he signed documents for a $150,000 grant to install new LED runway lighting at the county airport.
“On any given day,” Hopkins added, “anything is coming my way from staff development to projects to guiding people as to what they should and shouldn’t do…while the pandemic is going on.”
Finding the Right Fit
Hopkins harbors no illusions when it comes to the challenges facing Amador County’s efforts to get new business. He put the county’s business issues into three categories: Board of Supervisors’ acceptance, community acceptance, and infrastructure challenges.
“Because of politics, there have been things that I’ve proposed to the Board before,” he said, “and they have not wanted to move forward with a particular project because it either conflicted with somebody here locally or they just weren’t in favor of that particular growth.”
Hopkins cited an example of proposing an avenue for development on county land on Wicklow Way in Martell. “I asked the Board, why don’t you let me put out an RFP and invite people to the table? Ultimately, we give them the land for a good business proposal they give with a guarantee without violating CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act),” he said. “A redevelopment agency-type approach to say you give us what you’re going to do, and you’ll do it in one to three years, we’ll donate the property to you and the county gets to reap the benefits from that tax revenue. The Board is not in favor of doing something like that.”
Community opposition to some proposals was also something that was eye-opening to Hopkins. For example, there were more than a few people who opposed building a Dollar General store in Pioneer. This surprised him. “As we move forward, even if we had the infrastructure that I wish we had, depending on the growth that comes in, it may not receive a welcome from the community,” he said.
A larger issue Hopkins noted is bigger than politics is the lack of infrastructure. With the properties we own, there’s no infrastructure—it’s basically grazing land,” he said. So, to get somebody to come to the county to invest in that infrastructure and development is a big challenge.
“Amador County is still a very rural county with only 34,000 people,” Hopkins noted. “Cities eat up a bunch of that, in unincorporated areas we only have about 22,000 people. It’s not a big draw to a developer when you only have 22,000 people and grazing land, but we try.”
CEDS Coming into Focus
Hopkins believes that the draft Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) presented to the Board at its January 5 meeting will help focus on the county on what it needs. Last week, the county published an announcement for a 30-day public comment period on the draft. He believes that the Board will approve the final CEDS at its March 9 meeting.
Once the CEDS is approved, Hopkins said he will work with Kim Holland, the county’s senior administrative analyst, to create an action plan. Then, he said, “we’ll target a key person to go do a specific task in that action plan and report their progress. It’s not just going to sit idle.”
So, what happens if a part of the plan doesn’t work as (ahem) planned? “What I reminded the Board is that it’s a plan,” Hopkins said. “If we go down one path and whoever the lead is in that action after a quarter or year and we evaluate it, and we say we’re not getting a benefit out of it and we need to change, we’ll move to another action.”
Growing Human Capital
Despite his frustration with the political side of his job, Hopkins said he has been with the county long enough “where I can be quite candid with the Board or my chief administrative officer.” He added that it helps that he’s surrounded himself with good people over the years.
As Amador County gradually comes out of the pandemic, Hopkins foresees that the county’s primary business sector, agriculture, is mostly self-sufficient now. “They know their business and do a really good job all by themselves without us getting into the middle of that and screwing things up,” he laughed.
With established sectors such as agriculture, Hopkins sees himself as a silent partner for ag people asking what they need and helping support them. “I don’t know if the county can help the wineries anymore what we already do except with signage and partnering with them to market what they do,” he added.
Instead, Hopkins sees a need to focus on developing technical and professional jobs, and he noted that the county is working closely with Mother Lode Job Training to develop the local workforce for those jobs, including recruiting more people in professional and technical areas.
Indeed, job development was one of the focus areas of the CEDS that surprised Hopkins somewhat. “After talking with businesses, I found they have difficulty even hiring people who have good manners or a good political astuteness or business acumen,” he said. “A lot of folks don’t know how to interact with people positively in the business world. So, we’re getting our workforce capital up to speed and trying to recruit more professionals and more technical people in the county.”
Raising the Speed Limit
The pursuit of high-tech jobs once again brings the infrastructure challenge to the forefront, and it is included as part of the CEDS. Hopkins included a $247 million proposal to improve the county’s fiberoptic and communication infrastructure, and he hopes that project will be approved and mostly funded by the federal government.
Without it, Hopkins said, “it’s pretty hard to promote businesses because they want a high-speed connection.” He punctuated this need by telling the story of his son who bought a home in Mokulemne Hill that Hopkins thought was in poor condition, but his son purchased the home anyway because he could get high-speed Internet service.
Hopkins added that he’s working with other counties including Mariposa, Tuolumne, Calaveras, and Alpine to improve rural counties’ broadband service. “Growth will come if we have readily available water, sewer, and broadband,” he asserted.
Broadband is just one area where Amador County cannot operate as an island, and the county works constantly with its adjacent counties: Sacramento, San Joaquin, Calaveras, Alpine, and El Dorado. “We’ve been to Elk Grove and El Dorado County recently, and our next trip is to Sacramento to see what they’ve got going on with their regional plans. That regional approach is important to our economic growth,” he said.
What You Should Know
When it comes to supporting businesses, Hopkins said, “there isn’t anyone I can think of we aren’t really engaging with at some time to try to promote business. The Board likes to focus on small businesses, but we won’t turn away big businesses, either.” That said, Hopkins added, “I hope that moving forward we won’t be so rigid, but approval also depends on what somebody wants to bring to the county.”
Hopkins said that his departments will keep talking to them because businesses are his customers, and customer service is important to him in any capacity. “I don’t care if it’s my animal control director or if it’s facilities and my project manager,” he said. “I’m one of the few department heads who’s fairly demanding of people in that they realize that they work for the general public.”
So, Hopkins concluded, “We want your business, and we’re here to help you. It doesn’t matter if you need a funding mechanism you want us to find for you or help us guide you through the planning, development, or planning stages.
“Helping people is the best part of my job.”
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