July 5, 2006 > Managing our cities
Managing our cities
by Steve Warga
City Managers, who are they? What do they do? How do they affect your city? TCV will be looking for the answers in the five municipalities we cover: Fremont, Hayward, Milipitas, Newark and Union City. This week we spoke with City Manager John Becker of Newark.
John Becker-Newark City Manager
Recently City Manager John Becker took time from his hectic work schedule to visit with TCV. Friendly and enthusiastic, Becker demonstrates a firm grasp of both numbers and issues while cheerleading for a city distinguished by its efficiency and service. An amateur marathoner in his spare time, the Alameda County native spoke often of the city's long-distance way of operating.
TCV: Tell us a little about your background with the city of Newark?
Becker: I was hired originally as an administrative analyst with the fire department, a little over 15 years ago. A couple years later, I was offered a position in information systems where I was involved with installing our computer network with email and voice mail capacities.
When the finance director left about four years later, I took the opportunity to work with the information systems in that department. I was appointed to the director's position a year after that. I worked in that capacity for around three years until our former city manager, Al Huezo, asked me and Jim Reese to serve as assistant city managers, working with him in advance of his retirement. When it came time to replace Al, Jim took himself out to the equation by announcing his own retirement. I think that made the council's decision easier and they promoted me to city manager, effective January 1.
TCV: How's life in the manager's seat, so far?
Becker: Actually, quite challenging! I still see Al at Rotary and I'll kid him about not telling me everything. I've found out there was a lot Al did not delegate to me or Jim. Plus, it's different when I'm the final decision maker.
I've also learned to be careful about what I say and how I say it. Comments that I would consider casual, or even joking, can sometimes be taken seriously.
TCV: It seems the city staff and elected officials get along well together.
Becker: It's a culture that I saw right away when I started work here. We have many long-term employees and we have quite a few who have transferred here from other city staffs who express the same thing.
I think it all starts with the city council. Having a mayor and other members serving for a long time helps project a consistent vision, which gives the staff a clear sense of direction and focus that doesn't change every election cycle.
Another thing we're proud of is our customer service; the mayor prefers to think of it as "customer delight," meaning he wants us to go above and beyond mere service. It seems to work and I think that's why the council members so often run for reelection unopposed. We want citizens to feel like they aren't being shuffled aside. We make a point of responding to any and all complaints or requests we get. Occasionally, we've had new hires who don't really buy into the "customer delight" idea. They stand out like sore thumbs and don't last too long.
Our size helps too. We're not too big. We have about 340 employees serving some 44,000 residents and it all seems to fit well. Plus, there's a great rapport between the staff and the council. We all work well together.
TCV: What is your biggest concern in the immediate future?
Becker: Well, I think our challenges with the budget are my primary concern. We've been in a period of declining revenue while our expenses, inevitably creep up. It's taken some foresight and planning, but we've been able to balance our budget so far. I'm pretty proud that we've looked ahead -- sometimes years ahead -- and anticipated potential budget problems, for instance, with the changes coming down from the state in the Public Employee Retirement system during Gray Davis' tenure as governor. We saw how an effective doubling of benefits might hit real hard if the assumptions changed.
With the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and then the "dot-com" bust, those assumptions changed dramatically. A number of other municipalities found their pension contributions going through the ceiling. Ours weren't too bad because we negotiated early with our unions and then started banking money for the obligations awaiting us.
It's been tough to keep our expenses flat, but we're doing things like flexible hiring freezes to ease our costs. With this sort of planning we've been able to trim about $2 million in overhead. That helps.
TCV: Have you cut positions in the public safety sectors?
Becker: No, we exempt the police and fire departments. We will not compromise public safety. We've also kept our streets maintenance up to par.
TCV: We hear a lot about "reserves" in city budgets. Is there a formula for setting and maintaining them?
Becker: There are no clear guidelines or formulas. In fact, the word actually refers to more than one pot of money. Most people think of "reserve" as what I call "operational reserves," which is money you set aside for only the most catastrophic of emergencies. It's money you just don't touch for anything else. The city of Newark maintains a very healthy operational reserve.
Then there's usually money set aside for capital expenditures, like a new building being planned. We account for capital reserves separately.
After those two funds, you might have additional reserves. For instance, Newark has a paramedic tax that was approved a number of years ago. We set aside some of that money into a reserve fund for purchasing new equipment and so on.
TCV: Many cities are experiencing increased revenues lately, why not Newark?
Becker: Actually, our income is rising again, just not a whole lot and there are two factors working against us. First, we lost three major retailers in Old Navy, Kmart and Circuit City.
The second is the big drop in our hotel occupancy tax revenues. The city of Newark, with a population of 44,000 has half as many hotel rooms as the entire city of Oakland which has a population nearly five times greater than ours. We have a lot of premium hotel space. Well, that income really plunged after the dot-com crash. But now we're starting to see that climb again.
TCV: Anything you'd like to add?
Becker: I guess I could go on and on about some of our projects, like the Silliman Center. We're real proud of that facility and of how we worked to make it happen. In fact, this past weekend (June 23 to 25), we had record "drop-in" usage. That's what we call the people who use the place but are not dues-paying members. Just Friday alone, I think we had over a thousand drop-ins which is about double our previous high. And all our summer programs and classes are booked solid. It's working well and that means we're serving the residents and our neighbors too!