If you are from the ’80s, or dare I say even older, you may remember a syndicated TV series, “In Search Of,” in which host Leonard Nimoy investigated “lost civilizations, extraterrestrials, myths and monsters, missing persons, magic and witchcraft” and “unexplained phenomena.”
City Manager Larry Bierke is going to be one of those “missing persons” once he departs city employment May 1. (And with that I earn the award for Most Strained Metaphor of the Month.)
For some reason the oversynthesized “In Search Of” theme music went through my head as I started to look through the job advertisement and five-page Position Profile, which you can read at www.platteville.org/?post=2067, whether or not you’re inclined to apply for the position. Certainly finding a new city manager won’t be as difficult as finding the Loch Ness monster (maybe it’s in the deep parts of Rountree Branch) or Bigfoot (maybe it lives around the Mound?), but it won’t be easy either.
Consider the list of things the city has to deal with — roads that are falling behind the repair schedule, a Municipal Building with, as stated in the job description, “significant issues,” a population growing in diversity on both ends (UW–Platteville students and the elderly), the fire station that is older than I am, the EMS garage that seems unlikely to survive significant winds, and, oh, by the way, economic development and the various things college towns get to deal with. There is also a shifting group of people that appear ready to criticize anything the city does (for instance, trying to raise the city’s profile by attaining All-America City status) for reasons that may or may not be valid.
At four years and up to four months (if he stays until his scheduled departure date, May 1), Bierke is one of the longer-serving city managers in city history. Ten city managers in 44 years (not counting the apparently perpetual acting-city-manager-in-waiting, Director of Administration Duane Borgen, who has been acting city manager five times since 1986) doesn’t necessarily speak well of the city’s ability to keep city managers. Of course, no one wants a city manager who either (1) doesn’t want to be around anymore or has worn out his welcome with (2A) his bosses, the Common Council, or (2B) their bosses, the voters.
Having read the job description, I submit that the next city manager needs to be a creative realist. Municipal officials throughout Wisconsin bemoan shrinking state aid, particularly to cities with UW System campuses. They can bemoan all they like, but that situation isn’t going to change. State aid has been shrinking for far longer than Scott Walker has been the governor and Republicans have had majority control of the Legislature. Unless someone is able to use “magic and witchcraft” to find a source of free money, that’s not going to change.
One potentially creative approach to resources is capital expenses of four or more digits. A friend of mine who used to be a mayor asked why, for instance, two cities within reasonable distance of each other couldn’t get together to buy equipment that isn’t used every day — for instance, lawnmowing equipment or trucks. Cuba City is 10 miles south, Lancaster is 15 miles northwest, and Dickeyville is 10 miles southwest. It seems unlikely that every piece of city public works equipment, for instance, is used and needed every day, even during grass-growing season.
I would be particularly interested in the candidates’ record on taxes, which are proposed by staff, though they are voted on by elected officials. Every time I hear a politician say “we” need to raise revenue, I have to curb the urge to become unpleasant. This is an expensive state to live in (as your next electric and heating bill will prove), and we still have some of the highest state and local taxes in the U.S. Grant County’s median household income isn’t even $47,000, which is below Wisconsin’s $52,000 median household income, which in turn is below the U.S.’ median household income.
I have heard repeatedly from people that Bierke’s not living in the city was viewed negatively. That’s even though, thanks to state law changes, the city cannot legally require that Bierke, or most other city employees, live in the city. This is where the positives of living in a college town and our high-quality school district need to be emphasized with prospective candidates.
I mentioned this before, and have heard nothing in response from any alderman, so I will repeat what I wrote in this space previously: The city manager search process needs to be more broad than just the Common Council. The Common Council decides who the city manager is, but all of us Platteville residents pay his or her salary. (And, aldermen, we pay your salaries too.)