Rochelle Small–Toney remained quiet during the last several weeks, even though her name was mentioned in almost every conversation about city politics.
While the path to getting the permanent position was exhausting, some bigger challenges loom on the horizon now that she’s on the verge of accepting the job — the ongoing debate over LNG shipping, declining property values and their effect on tax revenue, sustainable economic growth, the arena project, and numerous others.
It’s expected that City Council will offer her a proposal for the job at their regularly scheduled meeting this week.
We sat down with Small–Toney at her office last week to talk about leadership, the direction of the city, and what she sees as some of the challenges facing the community as she stands poised to take the reins.
Having been acting city manager for nearly a year, there were limitations on what could and couldn’t do because you weren’t the permanent city manager. What do you see changing now?
Rochelle Small-Toney: One would be realigning the organization to pursue what I consider to be the most important initiatives that are ahead of us, such as getting through this financial situation we find ourselves in while still being able to maintain a good quality service level for all of our programs. We instituted the early retirement program as well as eliminating about 57 positions.
Now knowing that, that has presented some gaps in the organization. The challenge for me is to realign the organization to ensure that we’re able to carry forth the things we have to do.
As an acting city manager, the council was clear about not hiring at the director level and above. There were one or two instances where I had to hire, like the revenue director, because you couldn’t continue to function without that director being in place. Now that my appointment is on the horizon, once that’s done, I’m in a position to start filling some of those gaps.
Several of the bureau chiefs are acting or temporary.
RST: At least three are; the two acting Assistant City Managers and an acting Sanitation Bureau Chief. The Chief Financial Officer has assumed on a temporary basis some of the oversight of the departments that were at one time underneath the Bureau of Management and Financial Services.
How does the hiring process for assistant city managers play out? Do we have another protracted public process?
RST: No. The hiring of all employees falls under the sole direction and authority of the City Manager, so the council does not get involved in the decision making or the process.
I will be examining whether the existing city manager positions as we know them now — you have one over public development and another over management and financial services — will still be the same. I’ll have conversations with the bureau chiefs to get their input.
I’ll make a final decision about how the organization will be structured and for any vacancies that are there, there will be national searches. It won’t be limited to in–house, because my goal is to bring the best that are out there to the City of Savannah.
I think that we’ll be able to attract some really top notch executives and administrators to the city.
Beyond lingering economic uncertainty, what do you see as being some of the biggest challenges facing the city now?
RST: We are still working through the LNG issue. That falls under the larger umbrella of emergency management in general; a process of looking more critically at how well the city is prepared to respond to a disaster that might occur within our boundaries, and how well we’re equipped to respond and assist outside of the city proper.
I think another area will be how to grow the city in a smart way, meaning that at some point, the economy is going to pick up and we should be in a position to ride that wave as it’s going up instead of waiting until it crescendos.
I’m looking forward to working with other economic development partners such as SEDA, the Chamber and small business associations to help us figure out what role exactly will the City of Savannah play.
Thankfully we have a very strong tourist industry. We want to continue to support that so it can continue to grow.
Another major initiative that’s looming out there is the arena — where we site that arena, how quickly we can build it, what will be its size and purpose.
The cruise ship terminal is one that is being studied by a committee and there’s a great deal of interest in whether or not Savannah would be a great place to have a cruise ship. It can’t do anything but enhance the tourist nature of the city.
However, there are concerns that, for example, Charleston is facing now as it relates to environmental impact and what sort of impact it has on downtown. On the one hand, there are positives, and on the other, there are concerns that we’ll have to work through.
The deepening of the harbor is another major initiative that we’ll be paying a great deal of attention to.
With property tax revenues looking like they will decline at least a couple percent this year, and not a lot of certainty about the following year, are there are opportunities for alternative revenues that are within the city’s power?
RST: I can’t think of revenue enhancements that would rise to the level of lost revenues caused by the declining tax digest. Our approach to this has been to look on the expense side. That’s why being able to control our personnel costs and offer the early retirement incentive are steps in the right direction.
The challenge for us now is how do we manage that? How do we manage the positions that have been vacated as a result of retirement and make wise decisions about whether or not it’s a position that’s needed?
It’s a delicate balance.
With early retirements, you’re losing some people who’ve been with the organization 20 or 30 years in some cases.
Between the retirements and a patient approach to hiring, are we in a window where there’s an experience gap?
RST: It’s a concern, but on the other hand it’s an opportunity. For example, in police and fire, while we’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge, for the younger employees, they see this is as an opportunity to move up. It opens up opportunities for others to step in and demonstrate their leadership.
We’re trying to look on the positive side, but recognizing that there will be a loss of institutional knowledge.
With the staff transition, is there a chance that the budgeting process is going to suffer as a result of that?
RST: We’re required to present a balanced budget to council so we’ll stay on point. We now have to manage the programs we put in place for this year so we can be in a better situation financially than last year. If we’re not, it won’t be because we didn’t manage it well, it’ll be because of the economic conditions that are beyond our control — reductions in the tax digest or slower sales tax revenue growth than anticipated.
While we certainly will miss some of the institutional knowledge, because we’re losing the Budget Director, there are people who are capable of picking that up and going forward. We’ll be OK.
One issue coming up more and more is the permitting and inspections process for new businesses. Is there a way that can be expedited without sacrificing oversight? Are delays a necessary evil?
RST: It’s on my list. Where we are with that is the implementation of software that will help developers, architects, engineers and people who work on the private side to be able to interact with our staff to get an understanding of where we are in the process.
One of the things we identified as a barrier was the communication. Live information on the web, you can plug and see your project is at this point in the site review process, and here are the questions that the staff is waiting on.
Once you realize what’s holding up the project, then it’s going to behoove you to get back in contact with Development Services and provide that information. Before, I think that was not very transparent.
A necessary evil? I’ll say it is necessary. That is the safeguard to ensure that restaurants you dine in, that they meet a certain level of public safety standards. The evil part might be going through the process, but I can assure you that we’re going to look at that even more closely to ensure to that Savannah is open for business — not a city known as a place where you don’t want to come and open a business.
I understand we have that reputation, so that is a challenge for us. I want more than anything, next year this time, that all that has gone away and people are really encouraged to come here and know we’re here to help. We’ve made some changes in the department, some of that was personnel related, and we also did a little restructuring over there.
The new civic center/arena project has been on the table awhile, and there have been delays. But there are also new emergency response facilities being built in the basement of the existing structure, as well as several million dollars of renovation this year. Is that just for maintenance, or is this a sign the arena is a lot farther off than any one has acknowledged?
RST: The arena process is still a ways off in the future because we’re still going through this process of community engagement where they are responsible for many aspects of this. Should it be downtown, or on the west side where it was originally thought to be? Those are the types of things that committee will look at in terms of size, its purpose. Is it just for entertainment or is it for entertainment and sports? There are a number of issues.
An arena is in the future for Savannah, particularly if we want to step up and be a higher class city to attract tourists. Cities that are this size already have, or are planning for arena type facilities, so we’re somewhat behind the wave on that one.
I suspect the civic center will continue to be an important facility for the city. The problem we have is it has run past its useful life and we’re starting to lose acts because we don’t have the technology or the size to accommodate it.
Then there’s the Cultural Arts Center we had talked about moving from the proposed site on MLK and Gwinnett down to MLK and Oglethorpe, so it almost starts to create that entertainment district that has also been discussed. That entire site is going to be a very prominent site for arts and entertainment and culture.
One issue raised during the last couple of weeks but never really addressed was a potential shortfall in pension funding. Is that a concern?
RST: I don’t know where that comes from. We do our actuarial studies. Honestly, with the early retirement program, we simply wouldn’t have done that if the fund was in trouble. That’s an extraordinary step we took in offering that incentive through the early retirement program. We are a very financially conservatively managed organization. We don’t take risks and chances.
I think it has been rumored that we were pulling money out of the pension fund to support something else, but that’s against the law. We don’t practice like that. If I thought we were in trouble, we’d have been in front of council and the public much sooner than later.
During public meetings in January with city manager candidates, you made comments about dealing with the disparities between the two Savannahs — how the historic district flourishes while there are impoverished neighborhoods just beyond it. That’s clearly an issue, but it’s also a sensitive issue. How do you see taking action on that?
RST: First and foremost, my focus is on managing the city. The social issues that are out here in the community certainly blend into the management of the city and how well we deliver services, particularly in the areas of poverty reduction, keeping the crime rate low, providing affordable housing and a number of other issues that are priorities of city council. The larger issues about how to bring the community together, the city manager plays a role, but I don’t think the city manager is entirely responsible for doing that.
I’m hoping that the business community, the religious community and the civic community will look now to leadership that is about the larger community and not any particular area of the community. What happens in one sector is going to have impact on another sector. If the business community isn’t vibrant, that’s going to have an impact on the social and criminal aspects of our community.
If our crime rates are low, and people want to come and live and do business in Savannah, that’s going to create jobs and help with poverty reduction. It’s all interconnected.
Through the frenzy around the city manager process, you’ve perhaps been the only person quiet on the subject.
Was that necessary because you were having to do the job while simultaneously applying for the job? In hindsight could some specificity from you on topics like the bond and employee raises have quelled public speculation?
RST: No. I think my strategy was the correct one. I was a candidate, so it wasn’t for me to define the process and be in the process. In hindsight, I would’ve done it the same way.
But beyond that, would a more clear channel of communication with the public have halted some of the rumors?
RST: I don’t think I was unclear, frankly. When the issue came up about raises, I was very forthcoming about the information. What happened to the information after it was given to the public is beyond my control. None of that was withheld from anyone.
People took the information and created whatever story they wanted to create with that.
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