Ron Olson is a man with a plan — lots of them, in fact.
In his first 100 days in office, Killeen’s new city manager has taken a methodical, pragmatic approach to running the city. For Olson, planning, organization and accountability are the cornerstones of good governance.
It’s an approach the city has sorely lacked in recent years.
In an exclusive interview with Herald editors last week, Olson was forthright and direct in discussing his management style.
He talked about standardizing procedures, centralizing purchasing, making “intentional decisions” on city growth and taking on key tasks in 100-day increments to better maintain focus and make course corrections as needed.
It all boils down to a familiar axiom: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Over the past three years, the city has seen budget expenditures exceed revenues, culminating with last year’s proposed budget, which projected an $8 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Former interim City Manager Ann Farris, who proposed the budget, also built in a 10 percent spending hike and initially offered few suggestions on how to make ends meet.
Olson has taken a completely opposite approach to budgeting. He plans to have city departments build their budgets within targets they are given, to reflect revenue constraints. He also said he is not playing games with estimates or building in fluff, but rather working off the best estimates to give an accurate financial picture.
Olson also would direct departments to create “decision packages” that could be restored to their budgets if additional revenue allows.
Ultimately, he said, he would create a budget with complete transparency and explain it in understandable terms. Both of those concepts are welcome in a city administration whose financial dealings have lacked accountability in recent years.
Planning and procedures are at the core of many of Olson’s initiatives.
For example, he suggested stronger internal controls on purchasing, noting that the city has 243 city-issued credit cards, known as p-cards, in use by staff, which increases exposure to risk.
Olson also called for formalizing evaluation of the city’s management system, to include working with consultants to find ways to increase efficiency and productivity.
Notably, Olson said he supports centralizing capital improvement projects under one fund, instead of the somewhat haphazard approach to project funding that has been in evidence in recent years. However, he acknowledged that the city already has a high property tax rate and may have to get creative in identifying revenue sources.
Olson would like to build a technology plan, with the help of an IT governance committee, improve the city’s emergency operations center and develop a communications plan to identify better ways to get information to the public.
Most importantly, Olson said he wants Killeen to embark on a long-term growth plan, with more “intentional decisions” on growth, which he acknowledged may mean requiring more of developers.
Add to these initiatives the planned hiring of a police chief by the end of July, the completion of the investigative audit that’s currently underway and the release of the proposed 2018 budget, and it’s obvious that Olson’s second 100 days will be both busy and challenging.
With more than 35 years of city management experience in Utah, Arlington and Corpus Christi, Olson appears to be unfazed by the challenges facing Killeen.
But it goes without saying that he can’t move the city in the right direction all by himself.
In order to develop, enact and fund the projects and initiatives Olson proposes, he’ll need the support of the City Council. However, given the council’s 3-3 split vote on naming a mayor pro tem last week, that may be no easy task.
Olson told the Herald he believes a 4-3 vote on an issue generally involves a lack of information, and he has worked to increase the amount of information council members receive on each discussion item. He also said he would favor drawing out the deliberation process on some items, giving council members more time to fully consider and debate their merits.
Mayor Jose Segarra said council members expressed confidence in Olson after a two-hour, informal quarterly evaluation Tuesday. That’s encouraging, because they’ll have to work together as a team to move the city forward.
That means council members must put aside differences and allegiances to special-interest groups or employee blocs.
It also means abandoning personal agendas and doing what’s best for the city and its residents.
Certainly, the public has a role in the process as well. By becoming informed on the issues, taking part in hearings and staying engaged, residents can do their part to keep the council and administration on course.
Large crowds packed last summer’s contentious budget hearings, calling for a balanced budget and a forensic audit of the city’s finances.
The council took action on both counts, and the city is better for having received the public’s input.
The same kind of attention to the council’s actions is needed moving forward.
During his visit to the Herald, Olson frequently referred to the council members as “my bosses,” which is accurate, since the council hires and oversees the city manager.
But the ultimate bosses are the city’s residents, who have the ability to put those council members in office — or take them out.
The city hired Olson for his management experience, his analytical ability and his outsider’s perspective. So far, those qualities have paid off.
In his first 100 days, he has demonstrated a willingness to engage with the community, identify the city’s needs and work toward seeing that they are met.
Now it’s up to the council and the residents to become active participants in the process.
Ultimately, if Olson succeeds, so does the city. And that’s a win-win.