St. Croix County highway commissioner heading to the off-ramp
HAMMOND — Tim Ramberg retires later this month, but you'd never know it from the energy he continues to radiate.
The St. Croix County highway commissioner was springing from his chair late last month, eagerly explaining the complexities of state transportation aids — in between passionate asides about the dedication his staff members possess.
"He is passionate about what he does," said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, a River Falls lawmaker who has worked extensively with Ramberg.
The town of Eau Galle resident retires April 21 after 40 years in the transportation industry, the last 27 of which have been spent at St. Croix County. He's served as the county's highway commissioner since 2002 after working in other administrative jobs at the department after beginning his career in the private sector.
The 58-year-old now transitions out of a job that has allowed him to pour a blend of knowledge gleaned from academia along with a practical problem-solving approach from his farm upbringing.
"He can take a complicated issue and boil it down to something that most people understand," St. Croix County Administrator Pat Thompson said.
Ramberg said the farm mentality has served him well on various levels. It lends a long-term perspective to projects, which he compared to sowing seeds.
He used transportation maintenance as an example.
"A lot of the initiatives we do, we won't know if they work until you're dead," Ramberg said.
That causes him to get jumpy when he hears about things like people driving on cement before it's had time to cure. And he hopes that approach doesn't walk out the door when he does.
"I hope we stay jumpy," Ramberg said. "Hopefully I've planted lots of seeds."
He's compiled a succession plan for whoever takes over as highway commissioner, but Ramberg said he's tried spreading out his knowledge elsewhere, too.
In fact, he hopes that in one way or another, it's all been given away.
"To me, that's true leadership ... to make yourself obsolete," Ramberg said.
Ramberg said he falls back on advice he's picked up from the leaders he's worked under — phrases like "If you're not in on it, you're down on it," passed on to him by former County Board Supervisor Roger Rebholz.
"I try to share back," Ramberg said.
He said he's seen that succeed. In recent years Ramberg has brought equipment operators to the table in helping to prioritize machinery maintenance spending. The effort allows the operators to have a direct say in what gets funding and develops "an intrinsic motivation" among those workers, he said.
Those talks can get heated, which Ramberg said will sometimes cause him to smile — an expression he said can lead the person on the other side to wonder what gives.
"Because you care," he tells them.
If working in the transportation industry seems like a natural fit, it could have something to do with his father. A former town of Eau Galle chairman, Eldon Ramberg worked 36 years for the St. Croix County Highway Department.
"He would do trigonometry on the tailgate," Ramberg recalled.
Eldon's son would go on to assist in planning the county's biggest project in decades: the St. Croix River Crossing. The project, expected to be completed later this year, bridges Oak Park Heights, Minn., with Houlton.
Among the groups involved in the project were the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Natural Resources, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the transportation departments for two states.
"It was really important to have that support at every level, and (Ramberg) offered that," Harsdorf said. "He's always been very hands-on, very focused on the message — making sure that people understand the needs and working at how he can get them done."
Ramberg said the project, which has been delayed several times, meant navigating multiple levels of bureaucracy.
"That was worse than a root canal, because a root canal ends," he said with a laugh.
Still, he said he's grateful for the opportunity to work on the river crossing project. Ramberg said the project allowed him to inject that practical wisdom as the diverse stakeholders worked out differences.
"I'm an educated idiot," Ramberg quipped, in an example of his fondness for self-deprecating humor.
Those who've worked alongside him know what a joke that is, too.
Idiot? Not a chance, said Assistant Highway Commissioner Todd Rehnelt.
"Ramberg's business sense has made him a leader at the state, county and local levels of government," he said. "He will be greatly missed by his peers. For me personally, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to work under his leadership."
Harsdorf, a Republican legislator who Ramberg contacts frequently about projects and funding, knows his lighter side very well.
"He always maintains that sense of humor, but he's very passionate about (his work)," she said. "And he really works hard on involving people."
Ramberg said he's also proud that St. Croix County became the first Wisconsin county to hire a heavy-equipment trainer, a position he said will allow for regular training when crews are sidelined due to weather.
He thinks constantly about efficiencies and partnerships in and around the county, including partnerships with towns and private firms, which account for about $9 million worth of contracting work.
"He's made improvements to the St. Croix County highway system through his knowledge of funding and project management," Thompson said. "He's built a pretty solid team and I think that has served the county well under his leadership and direction."
Now that retirement beckons, Ramberg said he hopes to take more time with his wife Jody, and their granddaughter. He'll downshift from a job that's meant 50 to 70 hours a week at work, into a slower pace perhaps with volunteering on the horizon.
He also plans to work on his 12-acre tree farm.
True to form, he couldn't resist having some fun with that upcoming task.
"I'm going to be a branch manager," he said.