Jack Benson got a crappy welcome to Manitou Springs.
The new city administrator's first order of business was dealing with a burst water main pipe that closed down Manitou Avenue in early May and led to some minor, but decidedly unpleasant, flooding of water and sewage in nearby businesses. Benson was on-scene right away, lending his expertise.
It was enough to impress Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder, who said, "[Benson] has such a breadth of experience, I think he really has a good working knowledge of just about every area we operate in."
Benson beat out two other finalists in March to become the top public administrator in Manitou Springs. He replaces part-time administrator and independent contractor Verne Witham, who was paid $40,000 a year. Witham, a well-known local, died from cancer in January, at age 71, following a long illness and extended absence.
Benson, who refused to tell the Independent how old he is (calling the question "inappropriate"), bears little similarity to his predecessor. He's being paid $92,000 a year, is a full-time professional administrator, and an outsider in the Manitou area. Benson is quick to say he's still getting to know the ins and outs of the city he's been hired to run. But after 25 years in public administrative work (including top-level jobs in Dillon and Clear Creek County), he's not unfamiliar with the workings of small-town government.
Manitou City Council, at least, seems ready to trust in Benson's experience. On June 21, Councilors voted unanimously to give Benson power to spend up to $50,000 to carry out budgeted contracts without asking Council for final confirmation, and to hire, fire, suspend and demote nearly all city employees without the approval of City Council. Those are powers commonly held by city managers across the country, but in Manitou, Council had handled those duties for decades.
According to Snyder, that odd balance of powers had its roots in the 1970s, when a city manager instructed the Manitou police chief to crack down on sleazy characters. The chief apparently more than complied, crossing ethical and legal lines in an effort to "clean up" the town. When Councilors caught wind of the sweeps, they were outraged, and rewrote the city charter to neuter the powers of the city's top administrator.
But decades later, Snyder says it no longer makes sense to have such a weak executive. Council, he says, may want to approve the hiring of a city clerk (a power it retained), but has no business picking out the lifeguards for the city pool. What's more, Snyder says that an administrator with no firing power can't effectively control staff. He recalls one out-of-line city employee taunting a past city administrator by saying, "All I need is four [of seven] votes on Council" to keep his job. And in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, the employee felt sure he'd get the votes.
It was high time that Council get out of the personnel business, Snyder says.
Councilor Matt Carpenter agrees: "Some of the things that have gone on [in personnel meetings], I am more than happy to turn over to Jack."
One might think that Benson walked into an easy job.
His bosses trust him, and the city he's been charged with managing has zero vacancies in its downtown business district, with year-to-date sales tax numbers 3.5 percent above last year.
But all is not as good as it looks. Despite reasonable prosperity in the town, Manitou has a paltry $285,000 reserve fund — about 2.8 percent of its general fund budget. Benson says standards call a healthy reserve 17 percent. Since a reserve is a city's "insurance policy," Manitou is not well-positioned to weather an emergency or an unexpected dip in revenues.
"It's something we have to address this year," Benson says. "You either make the pie bigger [by raising taxes or fees] ... or you start to find more efficiencies. ... There are no easy answers to this."
And extra expenses are on the horizon. Manitou has very limited water supplies and may need to purchase water, at great expense. Aging infrastructure and extremely limited parking are also pricey problems.
Benson says those problems are up to the community and the Council to solve. His job will be to implement their solutions, and find a way to pay for them.
For now, he's focused on the financial health audit the city is undergoing; if efficiencies are found, Benson also wants to implement more competitive pay and training for city employees.
Assistant Summit County Manager Scott Vargo says Manitou's new manager is good at implementing change, noting that in his last position as manager of the Summit County communications center, Benson was able to set up strategic goals for years to come.
Vargo suspects it will take some time for Benson to adjust from focusing on the details, which he did as a department head, to seeing the big picture as a city administrator. But he says that Benson's greatest strength is his ability to examine changes before he makes them, and identify all the implications: "Jack was a very talented individual who spent a lot of time analyzing situations trying to determine the root causes of issues."
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