By Linda Davis
PIEDMONT -- The brains behind the city's budget is retiring.
The announcement was made Tuesday that chief financial officer Mark Bichsel is retiring after 20 years of keeping Piedmont's finances on a steady course in the face of economic changes.
"He will be difficult to replace. I am sad that he is leaving," Councilman Jeff Wieler said.
Bichsel, 64, has agreed to stay on until February, ever the committed professional.
"I want to do the midyear budget to assist the budget advisory committee and to finish the audit for fiscal year 2011-12 in late fall," Bichsel said. "And I'll be available on an ad hoc basis to assist where needed in the spring."
Bichsel also serves as the city's human resources director, and likes to start his days at city hall as a super early bird.
"It's rare I get here after 6 a.m.," he said. "That's true of most accountants. If you try to work later at night, you make mistakes." At a previous job, Bichsel arrived at work one time at 4 a.m., "and I wasn't the first one there."
Bichsel grew up in Washington state, and has lived 30 years in Castro Valley. He is an accountant with the heart of a social worker. He came to California after a short stint as a high school teacher to work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for one year.
Chavez, who died in 1993, championed the rights of migrant farm workers in the 1970s where his non-violent tactics forced growers to recognize the UFW as a bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers.
Bichsel then became a community organizer in Oakland in his 30s, working seven years for Catholic Charities.
He switched careers and obtained a MBA from Cal State East Bay, working for private accounting firms for a time, then serving as senior accountant for the city of San Mateo before coming to Piedmont.
The Bichsel family are all committed to serving others in some way. His wife, Carol Johnson Bichsel, is executive director of a homeless center in West Oakland. His oldest daughter is a teacher, married to a West Point graduate who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, now returning to private life to attend law school.
Another daughter just finished law school at UC-Irvine. One son has a degree in psychology and works at a center for children with emotional problems. The other son will graduate from St. Mary's College in Moraga in December.
The fair-minded, calm Bichsel, sticks to business and has worked hard to form his team of three staffers who assist him -- all cross-trained to perform numerous tasks.
"The first seven years I was here I went through six payroll people," he said. "They either didn't make it, or they didn't like it. I have had to let people go, folks who did not have that initiative or sense of responsibility." In a small city like Piedmont, everyone has to pull his or her weight, he said.
"City finance is not as simple as it appears," Bichsel said. "It can be overwhelming (for a new director) with all the funds we have, all the different things we do."
After the debacle over Piedmont Hills underground utility project that rocked the community, Bichsel took over the accounting for the beleaguered project that cost taxpayers about $2 million. He's had to tackle the confusing municipal sewer fund numbers and keep the books balanced to move forward with diminishing city revenues.
"He is a very talented individual, one of the best finance directors I have worked with, a hard person to replace," said Mayor John Chiang, a fellow financial professional.
Chiang will be on the search committee this fall to find a replacement for Bichsel.
Bichsel said he may return to social service in some capacity. But his immediate priority is to his family, to help care for his elderly mother-in-law who lives with them while his wife continues her work.
"The city has benefitted tremendously from Mark's service. We have been extremely lucky to have such a talented director for all these years," City Administrator Geoff Grote said. "I wish him the best in his retirement."