Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Termination: A Distasteful Feature of City Management

I was warned early in my city management career that you should not wrestle with a pig – you and the pig end up in the mud, and the pig loves it! While avoiding pig wrestling, let’s explore one of the distasteful aspects of the job of city manager: dealing with the prospect of publicly being fired.

In a professional employment relationship, the employer gives the employee a balanced assessment of what is good and what needs to be worked on. This is the purpose of annual evaluations, to give this valuable feedback.

Four Commissioners participated in my last evaluation, in November. (Commissioner Rogers abstained, saying he was a new Commissioner and needed more time. Commissioner Thornhill was not on the Commission at that time.) The overall average rating was in the “good” range. The scores of three of the Commissioners were fairly close, in the upper half of the “good” range. The fourth evaluation was substantially lower, barely adequate, submitted by Commissioner Van Sickle. This was a drop in his rating from the previous year (although that rating was also “adequate”) and I had not received any comments or conversation to indicate a problem. Comments written in the evaluation include, “With the down turn of the economy we need to think (sic) our priorities” and “The perception the citizens have is we are wasting money. In most cases they do not understand the budget process. However, we cannot continue matching grants that do not have end. Or apply for a grant just because it is their (sic).” There were several comments referring to projects already in progress, and the area of “Strengths” was left blank.

I held two meetings with Commissioner Van Sickle to try to get feedback on what he was concerned with, and the only area mentioned was the results of the employee survey. I was not presented with a list of concerns and recommendations for areas that need improvement. We spent the rest of the two meetings in general discussion.

Although the introduction of the resolution to terminate my employment was a surprise, I can’t say I was completely blindsided. There were rumors during the election that I would be fired by the Commission.

What truly amazes me is that life in our community, by my assessment, is very good. The City has accomplished a lot in the last eight years. Some of these things are obvious, like newly repaved streets downtown and new fire hydrants, gorgeous flowers and landscaping, the new water tower in the south end of town, and many new recreational facilities that were all done at virtually no capital cost: the new soccer-multi-purpose complex, the skate park, the soccer field in Kiwanis park, the refurbished boat ramp, and the refurbished shuffleboard court. But many things are not obvious, such as the land development code adopted four years ago that has brought many positive changes, the aggressive utility system maintenance program and the completion of projects that were on hold for years such as the southside forcemain and a major lift station and line improvement in the area near Lakeshore and Bullard, and drainage projects. The City’s net assets have increased from $8 million to $32 million during this period… and despite the continued downturn of the economy, the tax rate is the lowest it has been in 17 years.

In any case, the City Commission certainly has the authority to terminate my employment and pay me the six months’ severance pay that is included in my employment agreement. Such severance packages are an “industry standard”, given the lack of job security. But would anyone think that this is a good time to change managers? We are now preparing the most difficult budget in many years. Beyond that, is this the reputation that the City Commission wants to build in having a good working relationship with the city manager?

I believe that citizens want a City Commission that is sincere and transparent with the city manager – that when there are problems they are presented clearly and the manager has a chance to correct them.

In addition, I have been a full-time advocate for our community. This enthusiasm is reflected in writing this column and in the City’s Strategic Plan, which I wrote and the City Commission adopted several years ago.

The Commission will decide at its meeting on Tuesday, July 7, at 6pm on whether to start the process of termination. Public comments will be welcomed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Formulating Next Year's Budget

The daily operation of the City is directed by the City budget. This lengthy document is adopted every year by the City Commission in September, and the formulation of next year’s budget deserves your attention.

For most local governments across the state, the preparation of the Fiscal Year 2009-2010 budget will be very difficult. We have come through two waves of property tax reform measures mandated by the state legislature, and the economic downturn is being reflected in expected reductions in many revenue sources. This is particularly true in our town, where like many cities in the county our tax base has declined and in the current budget year our water revenues are off by over $200,000.

On the expenditure side, we will be challenged to maintain the current level of service and to take on some new responsibilities – such as the maintenance of the new landscaping on the US 27 median at Central Ave. The warranty period for that landscaping expires on December 9. In addition, the medians from Mountain Lake Cut-off to Waverly/Cypress Gardens are scheduled to become the City’s responsibility in the future if the City goes forward with the landscaping planned for those medians.

The preparation of the City budget involves a number of special City Commission meetings, with the current year budget used as the starting point. The current budget is available on-line for review on the City’s website at www.citylflakewales.com.
A General Schedule for Budget Preparation
In a typical year with stability in City revenues and expenditures, there are relatively few citizens who attend Commission meetings to discuss the budget. At a time when a local government is facing budget challenges, it is more important than ever to seek citizen input. The general schedule for the formulation for the City budget for the October 1, 2009-September 30, 2010 fiscal year is as follows:
  • Initial budget workshop held by the City Commission: Thursday, June 25, 6 pm, City Hall. At this meeting Commissioners will discuss the priorities for the preparation of next year’s budget. As noted above, the guideline for this discussion will be the current year budget.

  • Presentation of the independent audit of the October 1, 2007-September, 2008 fiscal year by Purvis Gray, the City’s audit firm: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 during the regular City Commission meeting that begins at 6 pm. City staff usually schedules a Finance Committee meeting before the Commission meeting in which the audit is presented, at 5 pm, to provide the Committee with an opportunity to ask the auditor detailed questions on audit findings. Citizens are welcome to attend both meetings. The information contained in the audit indicates the City’s financial position at the start of the current fiscal year.

  • Presentation of a Financial Forecast: July 21 regular Commission meeting at 6 pm, City Hall. This is the first year that a formal financial forecast has been prepared, and it is an important outlook on the revenues that can be expected for the next few years. This document is key for the City to ensure the sustainability of its services.

  • Early August: The Commission will set special budget meetings during August to review the draft budget prepared by City staff. Each year the department heads submit a proposed budget for their departments to the Assistant City Manager, who then consults with the City Manager and prepares the first draft of the City budget. Information provided by the property appraiser’s office on the tentative tax base is essential to the budget, and this figure is due to be provided to the City by July 1. Citizens are welcome to attend these special meetings.

  • September: During September the City Commission adopts the budget for the new fiscal year beginning October 1. The adoption must take place with two “readings” of the City’s millage rate (City property tax rate) and budget at two separate meetings. These meetings are advertised in a newspaper and are the subject of notifications mailed to property owners by the county property appraiser, which note the date, time, and place of the meetings, and the tentative millage rate that has already been adopted.
Everyone is cordially invited to these meetings, and input is welcome.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Maintaining the Landscaping

We live in a beautiful area. Our town is surrounded by picturesque orange groves and green pastures, and dotted with lakes and rolling hills. Our town is also enhanced with flower beds along selected streets and in front of buildings such as the JD Alexander Center.

The landscaping along a number of city streets is maintained by three entities, and more landscaping is on the way! Let’s take a look at the ongoing effort to provide landscaping, and what lies ahead.
On-Going Efforts
Caring for the landscaping maintained by the City – including the areas downtown, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd at Wiltshire, on Central Ave coming into downtown, and at the pier on Lake Wailes – is basically done by one city employee – Helen Gay – with assistance from other city employees, and from persons who have been sentenced through the court system to perform community service.

In addition to the City’s maintenance, there are two other groups that regularly maintain landscaped areas:
  • The Northwest Community group, led by Linda Kimbrough, maintains selected planted areas in the Northwest part of town; and

  • The Olmsted Neighborhood group, led by Joyce Otte, plants and maintains the annual flower beds on Lakeshore and at Scenic Highway and Central Ave. This group also took it upon themselves several years ago to clear out the heavy growth behind the library that blocked the view of Crystal Lake. What difference that project made! Over many weekends volunteers cleared the brazilian pepper trees, vines, and undergrowth to present a wonderful vista from the library.
What Lies Ahead
There are two major landscaping projects and several smaller projects on the schedule. It is noteworthy that none one of these projects are being funded by the City’s General Fund.
  • Providing landscaping in sections of US 27 from Vanguard School to Cypress Gardens Blvd: The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has provided the City with $400,000 for a landscaping project on this widened section of US 27. The City Commission recently approved the plans drawn by local landscape architect Marshall Whidden for Florida-friendly plants that do not require irrigation. FDOT staff has recently approved the plans, and they will now be put out to bid. This project is scheduled for completion by year’s end;

  • Re-landscaping Downtown: The City has just been awarded a Community Development Block Grant in the Commercial Re-vitalization category. A portion of the funding from this grant will provide over $300,000 for re-landscaping the curb areas downtown between First Street and Scenic Highway, on Central, Stuart, and Park Avenues. One area of emphasis will be to provide more shade trees.

  • East Central Ave: As a part of the land development code prepared by City staff and adopted by the City Commission several years ago, developers who destroy certain types of trees on their site and do not plant replacement trees must pay a fee into the City’s tree replacement fund. These funds are then used to purchase and plant trees in City right of ways and parks. A number of trees were lost in the hurricanes in the past few years on the section of Central Ave between Scenic Highway and Lakeshore Drive. These trees have been replaced recently with high quality trees planted in the right of way.

  • Kiwanis Park: The City’s Parks and Beautification Committee has developed a plan to plant trees in this very actively used park. City staff prepared a grant application for the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program for this purpose, but there were no applications funded this year due to a lack of state funds. A number of trees will be planted with funding from the tree replacement fund. The Kiwanis Club is also interested in planting trees around Barney’s Dream.

  • US 27 and SR 60 Intersection: The Parks and Beautification Committee is taking a look at providing landscaping in this area.
The maintenance of our landscaping is truly a community effort, and our town needs more partners for this worthwhile endeavor! Please call 678-4182 extension 225 to volunteer!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Looking at the Next 120 Days

The next 120 days will be particularly important for our town. Let’s take a look at what is possible, and what is definite:

  • It is possible that we will see hurricane activity. Over the years, most of us have been through many predicted hurricanes that were nothing more than a thunderstorm. This experience fueled the popular notion that hurricane force winds always die down by the time they reach us in the center of the state. That thought was “blown away” by the three hurricanes of 2004.

    Everyone who was on the City staff five years ago remembers the seemingly endless hours, being away from our families when there were pressing needs at home, sleeping on the floor in the fire station, and directing sewer lift stations without power to be pumped out well after midnight.

    Forecasters are saying that we may have an active hurricane season, but I pray that they are wrong. Many people suffered terribly when their homes were damaged, and a number of families – including everyone living in the Sunrise Apartment complex – had to re-locate. Hopefully we will not revisit that experience.

  • Another possible event is the renovation of the Grand Hotel. City staff continues to make steady progress in the complex contract negotiations with the developer and we are looking forward to a successful conclusion!

  • Topping the list of the “definite” events that lie ahead is the preparation and adoption of the City budget for the next fiscal year, which starts October 1. This year will be especially tough, as there have already been two years of tax reforms imposed by the state legislature and Governor. Many areas of the city’s budget have already been trimmed, and this year the city is also suffering the effects of the recession and a shrinking tax base.

    With the tough choices that have to be made, citizen input is needed and welcomed. The schedule for budget meetings will be published once it is finalized, and everyone is invited to attend the budget review meetings.

  • The Clerk of the Courts office provides a variety of services, including taking payments for traffic tickets and child support. At the end of this month, our branch of the Clerk of Courts office in the shopping center behind IHOP will close. Clerk Richard Weiss says that budget cuts from the state are to blame, and invites us to visit his branch office in Winter Haven (on Lake Alfred Road) or the main office in Bartow. Mr. Weiss has offered to meet with City representatives to discuss this situation.

  • The new branch of the Polk County Health Department is scheduled to be open in July! The new building is located on West Central Ave and is a vast improvement over the crowded and outdated facility on Central Ave at Sharp Street. We are all looking forward to this new facility and we want to thank Dr. Haight, his staff, and everyone involved for this wonderful addition to our community!

  • At the June 25 workshop meeting the City Commission will review the results of the municipal swimming pool survey with the group who did the survey, Unity in Community. Several years ago the City Commission set aside $1 million of the proceeds from the sale of the former Cooperative Fruit Property to build the pool, and interest income is building up. However, the annual cost of operating the pool is estimated at over $100,000, with entrance fees not expected to cover even 20% of this cost. Innovative ideas are requested!

  • The Florida Department of Transportation is revising their drawings for the medians on East State Road 60. The plans should be completed for distribution well before the July 21 Commission meeting, when FDOT staff is scheduled to present the revised plan.