Special City Council Meeting – March 25, 2014
Interviews with two candidates for City Manager. The first interviewee, Robert Bruner of Michigan, called the HR Department a short time ago and withdrew from his interview (he may have just received employment in Michigan).
The second candidate is present and will be interviewed. Council Rourke will begin the questioning.
Before starting, the council decides to hold a special meeting next Monday, March 31, 2014 at 6 pm for the purpose of electing a city manager.
Peter Graczykowski is the candidate. He’s spent 20 years in municipal management mostly in Massachusetts. He has a masters degree and a law degree. His background is in finances. Draws parallels between his experience in Springfield and Lowell.
Councilor Rourke: Questions – What is it about the city of Lowell that attracted you to apply for the position? This is my opportunity professionally to tackle the kind of challenges I’ve faced before from the upper management tier. Question – Have you ever been here before? A couple of times; I’ve researched the city. Question – What is it about your background and experience that makes you the right candidate? Financial management; looking at regional approaches; looking at long term liabilities of pensions, I have a lot of experience with that. Question – Many key provisions in city government have to be filled, how would you approach the hiring of them? In my most recent position I had key personnel leave; I saw it as an opportunity for consolidation. We consolidated all back office positions and then we hired people for the new positions; we didn’t force existing people to double their work. A good fit is what you’re looking for. Question – How would you handle situations where you disagreed with a city councilor? Politely and professionally. In my last position there were a number of things I felt I had to do but the majority vote prevailed. You have to live with it. In the end, the councilors are the boss.
Councilor Samaras: Question – How would you handle either cuts in services or instituting a tax increase? Many cities have cut all they can. To maintain core services you have to look for ways to do it differently. It’s impossible to keep cutting. You eventually have to look at raising revenue. Also regionalization is an option. Growth is the way to do it. You can’t have zero increase in your tax levy forever. With union agreements you have in place you have to pay for them at some point. Refers again to consolidating back office jobs and regionalization. Another option is fee for services rather than tax increases. Question – Can you give us an example of a success you’ve had with union negotiations? In two most recent communities I’ve negotiated on both the city and school side. That let me standardize benefit packages between city and school side. The major driver for negotiations is the long term picture; how much is the employee going to cost you when he is no longer here. I was able to limit the amount of time people were eligible for city health care once they retired. Long term gains more important. You want to treat people fairly but you have to be realistic. Question – How would you become more involved in our city if elected? I’d be very active with boards and commissions. Also be present at city functions. How would you work with the Lowell Plan? You want them to do all the research you can as long as it benefits the city. Talks about public-private partnerships in prior communities. Says it has to be a good fit.
Councilor Belanger: Question – If you are selected, would you move here? Absolutely. There’s no other way to do it. So long as there’s a commitment of time on both sides. Question – Please elaborate on the economic development division you created that was separate from the planning department? Often planning and development are two different skill sets. I found someone who had background in private real estate development. We hired a private firm to do this, to sell the town. It was just repackaging what we already had. We didn’t have a very good “welcome” packet for businesses (i.e., how long to get a permit, cut through red tape, etc). The success of this was very quick. We turned around 15% of our inventory in the first year. Businesses that didn’t know about the town found out about it and chose it. Question – Lowell’s residential tax rate is a bargain but the commercial rate is much higher: what do you think about that? It’s a policy decision. You have to look at your competition. If the community next door has half your tax rate that’s where developers will go. If you have a competitive advantage you can get away with different rates but always wonder how long you can maintain it. Question – How did you incorporate higher education institutions in past communities? Higher ed is a great opportunity. It attracts new residents. You can leverage services that the colleges provide. Question – anything stand out about our budget compared to your past positions? There was an excellent job done here. The city is in great financial shape. But to sustain the level of services you have to look at the levy going forward. Also of concern is funding unfunded liabilities. This budget doesn’t give you a lot of options. It has to be addressed because this will affect rating agencies in the future.
Mayor Elliott: Question – the solid waste management plan you refer to in your cover letter? There’s a landfill in Springfield that’s partially capped but you’ll eventually run out of space. We established an enterprise fund and treated it like a business, making it fee driven and self-sustaining. Question – What’s your opinion on going out to bid even if the law doesn’t require it? I’m with you on that. Just because you don’t have to bid it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If you don’t bid, how do you know what’s out there. Everybody bids everything. Competitive procurement is key because it yields the best result. Question – Tell us about the municipal court run by the city? We consolidated positions. They used to be part time positions. Question – Talk about consolidating jobs? You have to find the right person who wants to do it but you also need buy in by the city and schools. I sell it by saying “let’s try it and renew it if it works” The new person has no vested interested so is usually successful. It was a huge benefit. People all of a sudden worked together.
Councilor Kennedy: Question – Go back to splitting marketing from economic development. I’m not sure that’s the approach here but my concern would be similar; is the city doing everything it can to promote growth. If it works OK now, leave it as is. If not, split it up. Question – and the result? We did have 15% vacant inventory filled in first year. About half was vacant at the beginning. In East Providence making payroll was the biggest headache the first year. Then I was able to look at economic development. We did hire a commercial broker to market these properties. We didn’t have the skills/time to do it in house. We had some limited success with that. Question – You referred to friction with council in East Providence. I was part of the state’s transition team. It was part of a five year fiscal plan. If you deviate from it you go back to the problems that put you in the bad position. That was a big part of my problem. When you have some surplus, the temptation was great to spend it. It’s tough when you’re the only person saying let’s stick with the plan. Question – If you’re selected, will you take the job without a contract? No. Question – How did you get along with the state delegation in East Providence? Both the House and the Senate finance committee chairs were from East Providence so that let us make a lot of progress. I called them weekly. Question – If you are hired what would be your economic development strategy over the next five years. Your revenue is going to grow through economic development. You have the right people. There have to be defined performance measures. LowellStat will be very helpful with that. Question – What would you cite as being the most substantial economic development initiative? A huge residential development in East Providence that had been vacant for years, that had contamination. It was over 400 units, the largest in Rhode Island in 20 years. Everyone bought into it. I had to bring everyone together, the council, the public, the departments. I had to keep it all moving.
Councilor Leahy: Question – What would be your approach to hiring a CFO? I’d look for someone who is hungry to do it and who plans to be here for a while, not use it as a stepping stone. But a fresh look is good so you don’t necessarily need someone with municipal finance experience. I’d look for the right fit. The willingness to look at things differently. Institutional knowledge in the fiscal area has huge benefits. Question – Describe your first day and your first week on the job. I’d meet with everyone. You first observe and learn what’s going on. It’s a process that takes weeks. When you join a new team people have to learn about you too. Get a priority list from the council and from department heads. Question – We have a tight budget but we want to add more police and keep school spending at 100%, what would be your approach given that? Regarding maintenance of effort with the schools, meet the maintenance of effort. You have to get to it because a shortfall just carries over to the next year. You do have problems with the size of your charter school assessment. On public safety, if you need more officers you need more officers. Maybe there’s an opportunity to look at realignment of upper ranks which allows you to add more people at the lower end. Question – your view of the bond rating? It’s an important indicator of your financial success. Lowell’s have been going up which is great but the biggest challenge will be to align the goals of the city with the goals of the rating agencies. How do you balance those priorities?
Councilor Martin: Question – Talk some more about economic development in East Providence? I ask why they decided to come there. A lot is about geographic location and skilled labor force. You learn those are things that are valued so you start promoting them. Two German companies doing light manufacturing came in. An American high tech company came because of access to skilled labor pool. Question – was labor force a big factor? It was one of the major factors. We didn’t have a lot of success with low skill manufacturing. You can attract high skill manufacturing here in the northeast. Question – anything like that in Springfield? I was more focused on finance there rather than economic development. Question – We work closely with National Park, do you have any background dealing with Federal bureaucracies? Mostly on the environmental, regulatory side on redevelopment projects.
Councilor Mercier: Question – Reviews length of time in each prior job (averaging 2 years) asks about lack of time in jobs? He says they were internal advancement opportunities. When you’re a professional, you have to get to the next step so you take opportunities when they come. Question – What part do you see neighborhoods play? Neighborhood involvement is very important. Neighborhood associations have been very important to me in prior communities. You have to go neighborhood by neighborhood because that’s how the city was structured. Question – Would you continue a prior manager’s neighborhood impact team? I would certainly look at it to see if it operated best for the entire city. I don’t know enough about it but if it works I would keep it. Question – would you include us in your decision making process? Certainly. Question – tell me your best quality? My professionalism. I can work for anyone. I have the same respect for whoever I work for.
Councilor Milinazzo: Question – Asks about regionalization. Use it in ways that make sense geographically and demographically. An example might be a dispatch center. Question – Parking in downtown, is the parking program to generate revenue or manage parking? What are your thoughts? You have a $6mil operation for your parking enterprise fund. Managing parking has a lot to do with economic development so you have to manage it. You may want to make money on it but you mainly want to cover your costs. It shouldn’t be a huge revenue maker. Question – about size of reserves. Revenue agencies don’t want you to use reserves for operating expenses. You should keep it in reserve funds that you have access to. Question – putting money into the pension trust? It’s a very unsexy thing to do because no one is telling you it must be done but your really should do it for your long term fiscal health. Question – About Hamilton Canal and keeping that moving forward. What do you see the city manager’s role in keeping that moving forward? It has to move forward consistent with the master plan and consistent with the desires of the council and the residents. It’s great to get a state courthouse but you have to be sure you deal with all the related things like parking and traffic.
Closing Statement – This is an interesting and exciting career opportunity. It’s a good fit for me. It’s not a stepping stone. I’d like to stay for a long time and be part of the team. I’d like to ask you what are the three biggest challenges you think the city manager should tackle? Mayor Elliott: Economic development, financial issues (providing services with keeping a stable tax rate), also public safety. Councilor Mercier says communication, keeping us in the loop. Applicant says he required all department heads to give a bi-weekly update to the council which allowed for constant feedback. Councilor Martin adds “education” because it’s a foundation for everything else. Councilor Samaras says Lowell is unique, referring to Mogan and Tsongas. Says it’s about partnerships and getting people to take a chance. Safety is also a major concern.
End of interview at 7:54 pm