Walworth County leaders are applauding County Administrator David Bretl’s stewardship of county government — and dreading the task of trying to replace him.

Bretl, who is the county’s top non-elected official, has announced plans to retire after 18 years of service to the county.

As county administrator, Bretl oversees management of a $150-million-a-year county budget that includes law enforcement, highway maintenance, public health, land use management, and economic development.

Colleagues say Bretl has exhibited strong and steady leadership that has made county government more organized, streamlined and stable than it was years ago.

“He’s been such a dynamic individual,” County Supervisor David Weber said. “It’s not going to be easy to find a candidate who comes close.”

Bretl, 55, informed county board members and department heads Aug. 30 that he would retiring as soon as his replacement is named. He expects that he will be stepping down during the first quarter of 2020.

Bretl said he is happy with what he has accomplished for the county, and he wants to step aside along to spend time with family and address other personal objectives.

“I’m happy that this can be done in a planned and orderly way,” he said. “The timing seems to be as good as it gets.”

Bretl began in 2001 as the county’s administrative coordinator, then became county administrator one year later when the position was created.

He currently earns $195,000 a year.

County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell recalls that she got elected to the county board in 2002, and that she worked closely with the county administrator for many years.

Russell has been the board’s chairwoman since 2007.

“It’s been a great partnership,” she said.

Russell credited Bretl with consolidating county departments, replacing outdated facilities, improving the county’s debt rating and paying off long-term debts.

After the county made its final debt payment — becoming perhaps the only debt-free county in Wisconsin — Bretl joined with other officials last summer in a mock mortgage-burning party to mark the occasion.

“It was just a really great time,” Russell said. “He’s not afraid to take on the hard challenges.”

Others shared in the appreciation for Bretl’s service to the county.

County Sheriff Kurt Picknell said he feels fortunate to have spent so many years working alongside the county administrator.

“Dave has consistently demonstrated a visionary focus,” Picknell said, “coupled with his strong work ethic and collaborative leadership.”

Ex-county board member Paul Yvarra, who represented the Whitewater area from 2010 to 2016, said he remembers that Bretl had a knack for anticipating future needs or changes.

The county administrator established an efficient system for replacing aging equipment and vehicles as they reached retirement age.

Nothing seemed to be overlooked or mishandled under Bretl’s leadership, Yvarra said.

“He managed the whole organization well,” Yvarra said.

Bretl announced his retirement plans just as he was unveiling his annual budget proposal for the county for 2020. The budget should be finalized and implemented before his retirement takes effect.

One thing seems decided already: Officials will not try to replace Bretl with just one person.

County board leaders expect to promote Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter to corporation counsel — a position that Bretl held in addition to his county administrator duties.

Bretl’s current salary includes about $167,000 as county administrator plus another $27,000 stipend for his work as corporation counsel.

“It’s too hard to find anyone with all those skills,” Weber said.

Finding a new county administrator will not be quite so easy.

Weber said it will be challenging to find a successor who can match Bretl’s skills, temperament and intelligence. Just thinking about tackling the search, Weber said, has county board members “a little numb.”

Still, with Bretl committed to sticking around until a successor is named, officials realize they have the time and luxury of casting a wide net and considering both internal and external candidates.

Russell said she has high hopes for finding a strong administrator to pick up where Bretl leaves off.

“We’ve had the best,” she said, “and we want to be able to try and get the best.”