When Killeen City Manager Ron Olson announced last week that he plans to retire in October, he no doubt caught a lot of people by surprise.
During his brief tenure, Olson had the support of the vast majority of the City Council and had received high marks on each of his quarterly evaluations.
Since his arrival in February 2017, Olson has been instrumental in streamlining the management process at City Hall and bringing greater accountability and oversight to the city’s financial practices — something that was sorely needed in the wake of a management audit that found shortcomings in these areas.
Further, he has kept the council and city staff apprised of his goals and strategies in dealing with city issues, providing detailed reports every 100 days since he took over the position.
Perhaps most importantly, he has succeeded in crafting a balanced city budget in each of his first two years at the helm — not a small feat considering the financial challenges Killeen faced when Olson first took the job.
So why would he decide to leave after just 2½ years in the post?
Well, for one thing, it’s been a considerable challenge running a fast-growing city in which the demand for programs and services has consistently outstripped the city’s limited revenue.
Compounding the problem is the burgeoning impact of the state-mandated disabled veterans property tax exemption, which stripped about $4.7 million from city’s coffers last year, with the state expected to reimburse Killeen for just $1.2 million of that amount.
It’s a difficult problem with no easy answers. Killeen has about 4,300 homesteads exempt for 100 percent disabled veterans and their spouses. That land represents $634.6 million in exempt value — or roughly 10.8 percent of the city’s total property tax base. And the number of veterans claiming the exemption is expected to continue rising.
Though the state Legislature recently voted to increase the size of the state’s compensation pool over the next two years, the money still must be divided among qualifying cities. As a result, Killeen is unlikely to see enough financial relief to offset the tax revenue loss.
The city has several significant infrastructure challenges as well.
Though the city will start receiving money from a street maintenance fee next month, the $1.6 million it will produce annually won’t be enough to meet the deferred road maintenance backlog estimated at $35 million last year. Still, the council recently approved a $184,000 study to analyze the city’s aging street infrastructure and prioritize those in greatest need of repair.
In addition, Killeen needs repairs and upgrades on many of its city-owned buildings, with 27 of the city’s 43 structures needing new roofs in the next two decades, as well as HVAC system replacement.
In a report to the council in 2018, Olson said the city was staring at a shortfall of nearly $50 million by 2035 if nothing was done to change the current revenue and expenditure patterns.
Add to all this the ongoing issues of lagging employee pay — especially for first responders — and pressure from the Hill Country Transit District to provide additional funding for the Hop bus system, and it’s apparent that the financial road ahead may be a rough one.
Still, Olson has not shied away from tackling the city’s biggest challenges and has laid out long-term strategies for addressing them. He has drawn on his more than 40 years of city management experience to provide strong leadership to the city at a time when it was desperately needed.
He’s going to continue to provide that leadership as the city moves through the process of adopting the 2019-2020 budget — a process that may be more contentious than in previous years, if recent city council discussions are any indication.
But despite the continuing budget challenges and the stress of dealing with an often-fractious council that frequently votes along the same 4-3 lines, it’s possible Olson is retiring simply because he feels it’s the right time to do so.
And that’s his privilege.
The city hired Olson when he was 67, already retirement age. He made it clear at the time that his family was important, stressing vacation time as a key negotiating point in his contract with the city.
Not surprisingly, Olson’s retirement announcement came after he had returned from vacation.
In a discussion with Mayor Jose Segarra early last week, they agreed “it was time.”
Now, it’s the city’s time to search for a successor who can show the same kind of fiscal discipline, detailed planning and forward thinking that have marked Olson’s tenure in Killeen.
Segarra said the city will begin the process of selecting a new city manager in a special workshop Tuesday. He also noted the city may use a recruiting firm, as it did in the hiring of Olson.
That would be a good first step. Finding a city manager with the right approach and sufficient experience to move the city forward should be a top priority.
At the same time, the city should commit to an open and transparent selection process, one that gives residents the opportunity to meet and talk to the finalists for the position — as was the case prior to Olson’s hiring.
Hiring the right person to take Olson’s place won’t be easy, but it’s the most important task the city faces in the coming months.
As Killeen moves into the next decade, it will no doubt face considerable challenges in the areas of growth, revenue, infrastructure and city services.
It’s crucial that the city hire an experienced top administrator who can meet these challenges head-on.