Briefing the new guy

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Galesburg city manager Gary Goddard will have completed a decade in that post when he retires at the end of this year. On January 2nd he will be replaced by Dane Bragg, formerly one of four assistant city managers in Decatur. As he begins his new position Bragg will be the youngest city manager in Galesburg history at age 32 and he brings relatively modest and narrow experience to a challenging position. Outside of the mayor, city council and (presumably) some city staff few in Galesburg have met this man so it is too early to begin predicting how or what he might do. What is almost certain is that Bragg will be surprised to find out the state of the city he has just adopted. We at the Zephyr thought this would be a good time to brief the new guy on the state of Galesburg and point out some of the strengths, weaknesses and problems that must be addressed.

Let's start with Galesburg's strengths. Despite the many doom-and-gloomers around town that virtually wrote Galesburg off following the closure of Maytag and Butler the impact has not been disastrous. One sign of this that Bragg has probably already discovered is that the oft predicted collapse of the local real estate market never occurred. Residential housing prices have remained relatively stable since Maytag and Butler relocated. Galesburg area never experienced the real estate boom other parts of the country experienced in years past but neither have homes sat abandoned or sold at a huge loss due to the market. There has been a modest loss of assessed value in the industrial and commercial sectors as a number of those properties have been devalued or sold for a fraction of their prior assessed value.

While there is little doubt that the 2010 census will not be kind to Knox County as a whole it would appear anecdotally that the population of Galesburg itself has fallen comparatively little although demographics have changed. Many of the workers at Butler and Maytag and other businesses that have recently shut their doors in the Galesburg area lived outside of town and commuted daily to work here. A substantial number of the most experienced, talented and productive former Maytag and Butler employees quickly found new jobs in Peoria, the Quad Cities or with other regional employers. Many other laid off employees are now working multiple lower paying jobs to make ends meet as they remain in Galesburg while others simply retired a little earlier than anticipated. The net result is that the population flight from Galesburg never reached the levels many feared.

The Galesburg school system is one of the best in central Illinois despite the declining enrollment. The enrollment declines are a cause for concern however for they reflect a decline in the number of younger families in the immediate Galesburg area. A common misunderstanding about the plight of downstate schools is that the root of the problem is in their tax base. While schools, which are heavily funded by property taxes, could clearly use more funds the real crisis is the loss of students. The state school aid formula is keyed to the number of students and as this number declines so to does state aid.

The biggest impact in this loss of student numbers is felt at the high school level where low numbers make a quality high school education cost prohibitive. Unlike many surrounding communities Galesburg High School has been able to maintain sufficient numbers of students to permit a larger selection of teachers and wider and deeper curriculum. GHS students can get an excellent education (particularly strong in math and science although weak in writing) and succeed in college  through the proper choice in classes. But it does Galesburg little good to see the school systems surrounding it face collapse and it will be important to the long term success of Galesburg that these other communities solve their school problems. If we continue to see the population of school-age children decline the numbers crunch that is dooming most of the smaller school districts will eventually begin adversely affecting GHS.

Galesburg is fortunate to have a large amount of park acreage although most of the biggest  parks are located around the city periphery and there is a shortage of smaller neighborhood parks. Furthermore, the amount of effort and resources devoted to the upkeep and maintenance of these parks has been insufficient for years. The only time substantial improvements have been made in the parks is when grant funds were available. As the operational expenses have been minimized park facilities have fallen into disrepair. As the city has acquired properties through demolition of abandoned homes there has long been talk of attempting to create additional smaller neighborhood parks in under served areas but little real progress has been made on this front. The effectiveness of the park system is hampered by an artificial separation between the park department (that supposedly maintains the facilities) and the recreation department (that is responsible for programming). This paper has long advocated the merger of these two departments into a single parks and recreation department that sits separately from either Public Works and Community Development and is managed by a single superintendent.

In a display of vision and leadership not often seen since the inception of council-manager government in Galesburg the city council in 1959 made a wise and fateful decision to construct a water pipeline to Oquawka so that water could be drawn from a large aquifer beneath the Mississippi River. While the succeeding years saw surrounding communities suffer from continued reliance on well water Galesburg has had over 40 years of reliable and (relatively) plentiful good tasting water. Today this system remains a key strength of the city despite decades of deferred maintenance and artificially low water rates that have combined to create one of the crises Bragg inherits from Goddard.

All around Galesburg one can see evidence of infrastructure neglect or poor choices based on simple-minded cost assumptions but what should be of even more concern is the deteriorating infrastructure you can't see. The hallmark of Goddard's reign as city manager has been his highly touted financial prowess. This has been an image Goddard carefully cultivated through years of manufactured budget crises that he “magically” solved while still completing costly and highly visible projects like the Lake Storey Pavilion and building a city savings account in the tens of millions.

Goddard accomplished this by starting each budget discussion with unrealistic “dream” expense budgets and incredibly conservative revenue projections. By paring out expenses that were never seriously considered and reducing operational costs at every turn Goddard made himself look like some kind of financial genius. However there was a very real cost to this strategy. All kinds of things that are important, even critical, to making the city run well have been underfunded or simply not funded. This has led to infrastructure crises such as that faced by the water division. The absence of proper maintenance has created a very dangerous situation with not only the pipeline to Oquawka but much of the in-town water infrastructure as well.

For example, our old backup wells have not been maintained or tested as required and today could not be counted upon in the event of a pipeline crisis. Significant amounts of water mains throughout the city need to be replaced along with the system of valves that permit control of the water system. The sand filters and reservoir need to be replaced as they are literally falling apart from decades of improper maintenance and even our newest water tower is already facing rust damage because of ill-advised cost cutting in its construction.

Much has been made of the storm sewer projects along Henderson Street and East Main Street. Both projects appear to have been extremely successful in solving long-standing problems with storm water collection in Galesburg's commercial districts. However, these are not the only areas of town where insufficient storm water sewers exist. A number of long existing residential neighborhoods have historically faced flooding problems whenever heavy rains hit Galesburg.

Traveling around Galesburg at night helps highlight the sad state of disrepair of many city streets and the huge number of street lights that are non-functional. Potholes and rough streets have become increasingly common in Galesburg. A street program that was once based upon the approach that quickly addressing problems and conducting preventative maintenance would create better streets and reduce the longterm costs of road maintenance has apparently been replaced with the philosophy of “we'll get around to it when the problem really gets bad enough.” Waiting until the entire street requires resurfacing means that not only must drivers put up with rougher less safe streets but also that taxpayers must shoulder higher costs over time to save money today.

The city pays AmerenIP a fixed amount monthly per street light regardless of their operation, it would be a nice bonus if most of them illuminated the street and sidewalks below. How difficult would it be to task each city employee to report non-functional street lights so that they can quickly be put back into service? Things like this are quality of life issues that cost little to address but can return dividends in both safety and the overall appearance of the city.

One thing Bragg has almost surely already been told is what a great staff he inherits. This is only partially true. The rank and file city employees are mostly quality workers who are conscientious about their work but there are glaring weaknesses among the top level managers. Goddard is an undeniably bright guy but he is also apparently insecure. He has made every effort to recruit staff directly beneath him that will never challenge him and unquestioningly accede to this every wish. He doesn't promote open discussion of issues or constructive disagreements among staff and he certainly doesn't appreciate someone beneath him correcting his mistakes or pointing out a better way to do things than that suggested by Goddard himself. This doesn't necessarily mean that top level city staff are not competent in their jobs but rather that Goddard never chose strong, aggressive leaders.

This may well turn out to be a problem for Bragg due to his relatively brief experience in but a narrow range of city government. It is a sure bet that he will be expecting more autonomy and leadership from his top level staff than they have been encouraged to exhibit prior to his arrival. It seems likely that Bragg will find it necessary to shakeup his top staff relatively early in his tenure here. That would be a good time to reexamine the city organization. A proposed reorganization of parks and recreation has already been touched up above but a number of other changes are worth consideration.

Separating the Water Division from Public Works and setting it as an independent department could be a good first step toward insuring more responsible management of this key infrastructure. We might want to go so far as to create a water commission appointed by the mayor to more closely monitor and oversee the water department than the council itself can do.

Given the current focus of the city council it would also seem wise to separate economic development into a separate department, perhaps paired with a public or community relations effort that has long been absent from city government. Include responsibility for the city website within this new department and have Roy Parkin be the city's point man focused totally on economic development and the city's image to outsiders. Part of this job might include inter-government relations. At the present time Goddard makes no secret of holding Knox County authorities in low regard and the relationship is non-existent. This is shortsighted and should be addressed early with overtures for greater cooperation between the two bodies. An early goal might be to abandon the awkward www.ci.galesburg.il.us Internet domain name for an easier or simpler one like www.galesburg.org currently owned by the Chamber of Commerce but insufficiently used or better yet get www.galesburg.gov instead.

As a way to save residents money and better serve businesses in Galesburg it would be wise to reconsider establishment of city-operated garbage pickup and recycling. An environmental department could be created and both residential and commercial trash pickup could be offered. While it is debatable whether operating a residential trash pickup service alone would achieve sufficient economies of scale expanding service to include commercial pickup would make the endeavor much more cost effective. The current virtual monopoly that Waste Management has over waste collection leaves citizens and businesses alike at the company's mercy. It is unlikely that the city would win over all commercial business but the mere presence of competition that can't be bought out will most likely help lower waste collection costs.

The police department requires attention from the new city manager. While it remains too early to assess the impact of new Police Chief David Christensen there are a number of areas for improvement within the GPD. First off, the department is top heavy with officers and too many of them work day shift. Crime is down in Galesburg despite protests to the contrary by some sectors of the community but this may be more reflective of a national trend than of the GPD itself. The department has earned a reputation for being heavy handed and substituting old-style intimidation of suspects for modern investigative techniques. The application of smarter police work and  finesse should replace the over-reliance on obtaining confessions or depending upon confederates or confidants rolling over in trade for milder treatment themselves.

The fire department has a long tradition of spending funds on customized and over-priced fire trucks that sacrifice utility for flash and impressiveness. The saga of the aerial truck is a great example. Structure fires are a relative rarity in Galesburg today and when they occur there is little or no likelihood that people will be rescued from high buildings by the ladder truck. Instead, the vast majority of fire calls are for emergency medical reasons, traffic accidents or minor fires that do not require lots of manpower or huge fancy trucks. In fact, although it is regularly used for these purposes the aerial truck is both inconvenient and inappropriate for most such calls; not to mention much costlier to operate. When we do have structure fires for which the aerial truck is useful its task nearly 100 percent of the time is to spray water from high above the fire; a task that can more cost effectively be completed with a less costly snorkel truck.

If Galesburg purchased fire trucks from the state bid program the city would save big dollars over the flashier custom designed trucks historically purchased. With this savings money could be used to purchase less sexy but decidedly more important things like replacement hose and other daily use gear that is historically underfunded. The three bigger trucks needed to fight the occasional structure fire could have their service life extended if they weren't used on the huge number of calls where a smaller two-man truck with rescue gear, a collection of fire extinguishers and a small tank and pump would be more appropriate and cost effective. This is flexibility that would save money over time and better reflect the day-to-day tasks facing the fire department.

And finally the city finances and finance department. While we have grown accustomed to hearing about how the sky is always falling in Galesburg the truth is somewhat brighter. Galesburg currently has over 45 million dollars in the bank which includes money in funds like the water fund that are dedicated to specific uses. Nevertheless, the amount of money the city has saved is far in excess of what most government bodies maintain for “rainy-day” or contingency reasons. When you add the tens of millions of dollars of bonding authority the city possesses but seldom uses it becomes clear that with a little imagination Galesburg could ride out a few lean tax years without significant reductions in services or deferring maintenance. In fact it could be argued that leaning on these reserve funds and the bonding authority to enhance maintenance and city services will not only pay back dividends as the economy improves but also lessen the immediate economic impact. This is yet another quality of life issue that makes Galesburg more attractive to new residents and businesses at the same time as better serving those who already make the city home.

Dane Bragg was hired in large part because of the city council's interest in improving economic development in Galesburg. Hopefully he appreciates the simple fact that running the finances of a small city is far different from a personal checkbook. While neither the city council nor Goddard seems to appreciate the importance of quality of life issues in the economic vitality of a community we must hope Bragg does and that he can communicate a new vision to the city council. Galesburg is in a slow downward spiral right now but we are far from doomed. The old model of luring a large (or even medium) manufacturer to town has proven fatally flawed and should be abandoned.

In its place we need to nurture the people and businesses that are already here and encourage local creation of new businesses of all types – not just blue collar manufacturing. The real key is whether we can make this community sufficiently attractive that the best and brightest of our children want to return and make Galesburg their lifetime home. We need to attract a wide mix of demographics to maintain a vibrant city and we need to establish a broader collection of knowledge-related jobs in addition to blue collar jobs. We must identify the true strengths of this community while we realistically remedy our deficiencies. Innovation must be encouraged and nurtured while tradition-bound thinking is challenged.

And perhaps Bragg's biggest challenge will be the people who hired him. It won't take him long to see the absence of wisdom, leadership and vision that characterize the current city council. Past city managers have welcomed weak city councils and assumed their policy role with the passive concurrence of the city council itself. When the city is run this way, as Goddard had done for the past decade, the city manager is essentially as close to a monarch as one can get in this country but at great cost to the city's future. At his age Bragg clearly sees Galesburg as but a stepping stone in his career so it will be important that the city council be encouraged to reassert its rightful leadership role. If this happens it is probable that Bragg will serve five or six career enhancing years here in Galesburg and leave the city better off than when he arrived. However, if Bragg follows the Goddard model it is likely that Galesburg will continue to flounder and an impotent city council will can him as their scapegoat in frustration.