The way he tells it, he's just not good at saying no.
So when Colorado Springs City Council asked Fire Chief Steve Cox to serve as interim city manager — likely for a year or more — he obliged. Cox, 49, says he plans to do his part to fix the problems that have plagued the city in recent years. Which is not to say that he has any dreams of holding the top office indefinitely.
"Let's just say my intention was to retire as fire chief," he says, with a grin.
It's not the first time the city has tapped Cox for a temporary position. Back in 2008, Cox served as interim assistant city manager. And Councilor Darryl Glenn says Cox was an obvious choice when City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft announced her resignation effective April 16; he had the experience, and he represented public safety, which Council has consistently cited as the Springs' top priority.
Cox also had something the current assistant city manager, Nancy Johnson, does not. She's a newcomer, while Cox has lived his entire life here. His family has local roots back to the pioneer days, and his stepfather was a battalion chief for the Springs Fire Department.
Cox also is a true hometown hero. He worked his way up the ranks, and in the '90s he was awarded the Medal of Valor for pulling a man from a burning apartment building. Cox describes how the man was so badly burned that his skin was peeling off his arms as Cox rescued him. The man spent 18 months in the hospital, but recovered and still visits Cox.
In a pickle
The new city manager gets rave reviews from colleagues.
"He's very straightforward," says Fire Lt. Mike Smaldino. "He's gonna tell you what he thinks; he's not going to hide behind anything."
"Steve has the strength of his spirituality, his uncanny common sense ... and a passion for wanting to serve the people of this community," says Dan Raider, who will serve as acting fire chief.
Despite the glowing reviews, however, Cox appears in an awkward position. He'll probably be leading the city for a year to 18 months — enough time for Colorado Springs to find a permanent replacement, or, if voters choose, to see the position disappear within a new, strong-mayor form of government. That means Cox will serve long enough that he'll be expected to bring vision and considerable planning to the table, but not long enough to see big goals to their conclusion.
Cox is also facing a projected $27 million budget shortfall in 2011. Because of earlier financial troubles, the city's already cut most funding for parks, transit and roads. The general fund's biggest expenditure by far is police and fire. And that means Cox, a 27-year Fire Department veteran, may have to cut public safety considerably, possibly leading to firefighters losing their jobs.
So what does Cox think of this ordeal?
"We've got to lighten up a bit," he says. "We need to talk more about what we can do rather than what we can't do."
Cox says obsessing about budget woes has crippled morale among city employees and the public. For his part, he sees a few positives: He's impressed with progress in developing city-county partnerships, and districts to support parks and transit if voters approve. And he's noticed how citizens have reached out to help through volunteerism. Government should be helping those volunteers make a difference, he says.
As for the budget, more cuts will come, and Cox says he'll be fair about them. But he doesn't want to think about cuts until mid-year. By then, more sales-tax numbers will be available, and the finance department can figure the true scope of the 2011 budget problem.
"Let's take a breath," he says. "Let's let a couple of months go by."
This approach is notably different from his predecessor's. Culbreth-Graft believed that regularly reviewing the budget was essential, so revenue predictions could be squared with reality, and that regular pruning would reduce end-of-the-year deficits. Hence, her budget season — once an end-of-the-year affair — became a year-long slog that felt especially frustrating because tax collections were erratic.
The barrage of budget cuts Culbreth-Graft was charged with implementing also inflamed emotions. Councilors often bickered over what should or should not be funded, and at times, Culbreth-Graft seemed to have a hard time discerning what they wanted to save or toss from the budget.
It's in this area that Cox thinks he can make a difference through more communication, which he calls his number one strength. He's already setting up regular meetings with every City Councilor, hoping those chats make planning and big decisions easier for everyone.
"I think the smart way to maneuver," Cox says, "is not to surprise Council."
But Cox isn't so cocky as to think his new job will be easy. He's been hanging out with Culbreth-Graft, whom he calls "a fantastic human being," and trying to learn as much from her as he can. And she's offered him a bit of advice, he says:
"Stick with your values and your ethics, and if you do that, you can always look at yourself in the mirror."