‘Decisions will be made’: Helena’s new acting city manager discusses priorities | Local

After the second abrupt departure of a city manager from Helena in less than three years, career administrator Tim Burton took the interim reins last week.

In an interview on Thursday, Burton said he doesn’t see his role as just a steward, but as an action role.

“If all I do is sit here and let the world pass, then when the commission hires a permanent city manager, then we would be in the same position as we are now,” Burton said. “Decisions will be made, and quite frankly, I’m going to have a good view with my experience and my acting position to sit down with all the finalists for city manager, tell them where we’ve been, where we are and where we and I think that’s very valuable for recruiting top talent.”

Burton, who from 2000 to 2009 served as city manager of Helena, said the city will focus on three priorities: organizational stability, budget, and forming a process for distributing US federal Rescue dollars. Plan Act.

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Burton also worked as Deputy Director and Chief of Staff to then-Attorney General Steve Bullock. He most recently served as executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns. He also served as chief of staff to a governor and chief administrative officer for Lewis and Clark County.

Along with the revolving door in the city manager’s office lately, Helena has seen a constant turnover among department heads. Former city attorney Thomas Jodoin, former director of community development Sharon Haugen and future director of parks, recreation and open lands Kristi Ponozzo are the latest to step down.

Burton said he helped conduct interviews for city attorney and community development positions last week ahead of his official start date. Burton added that he was “very impressed with the talent we’re getting in these pools” and that the city is “close” to hiring for both positions.

The city also received more than 20 applications for the open post of police chief, he said.

Before her resignation on February 18, former city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk had pushed for a study of the city’s salaries and wages to better align them with the current market.

Burton said Thursday that will be an important part of stabilizing the organization, ensuring that city employees are properly compensated and can cope with the rising cost of living in the region.

“I think we need to after this budget and before the next budget we need to put the resources forward to do a full market analysis on where we stand in collaboration with other similar organizations for competitive salaries,” said- he declared. “What I would like to get out of this is a long-term approach recognizing that we want to be competitive in bringing in the best talent; that there are cost of living increases and market issues that we have to adapt ourselves.”

He said making such political decisions cannot be done overnight and that market analysis will allow the city “to adopt a multi-year strategy, so that we can continue to improve salaries. , benefits, those kinds of competitive issues that everyone is facing today in the public and private sectors.”

First, Burton said, “we have to go through the budget, and I anticipate that we will allocate some level of resources to engage outside experts to assist our personnel department with this market analysis.”

Burton also said an additional item to the city’s immediate priorities would be a comprehensive review of the systems in place within city government to ensure operations are as efficient as possible, and this will likely also help with recruitment and retention.

“When you look at predictable and efficient systems with talented people, it creates a climate and an environment where people want to work,” he said. “And not only that, you click positive results at the direction of the commission for the citizens of Helena. We are not very far from telling you the truth.”

The city is about to embark on its fiscal year 2023 budget process, an arduous, months-long effort that requires coordination across all departments.

Harlow-Schalk has attempted to modernize the city’s budget process by making it more easily accessible to the public through an interactive budget tool that allows citizens to better share their opinions. She called last year’s budget work “a more robust process than you’ve seen in Helena in a long time.”

Burton acknowledged Harlow-Schalk’s work on improving the city’s budgeting process and said he believes the city “can build on this model,” citing improved citizen awareness while throughout the process.

“I think in terms of communicating to the public it becomes important, how we represent the priorities of the commission,” he said.

Burton expects the budget process to be closely monitored with a review of “all of the city’s capital improvement plans for water, wastewater, streets, stormwater, parks and recreation, open spaces, firefighters, police”.

He said the city commission can use the information gathered from such a review to better define the methodology by which the commission will allocate the ARPA money it has received, more than $4 million to date with another wave of more than 4 million dollars expected this summer.

“After that, next year, the city will be in a good position to look at areas of (capital improvement plans) that aren’t being funded and ask how we approach that, bonds, rates, etc.”, a said Burton.

City staff previously submitted several competitive state grant applications for ARPA dollars totaling $26 million. Of this amount, the city received only $2 million for necessary upgrades to the city’s drinking water system.

This grant administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is separate from the more than $8 million in direct allocations from the city.

Staff will continue to determine which water and sewer projects can actually be completed before the 2026 deadline to spend federal aid, given the limited number of contractors available to the city.

This limitation resulted in staff recommending that only about one-eighth of the city’s direct ARPA allocation be applied to water and sewer projects.

Most of this will likely help pay for improvements to the city’s intercity connection that supplies potable water from the Ten Mile Creek Water Plant to homes and businesses on the east side of town. an aging connection, Helena Public Works Director Ryan Leland has called the city’s “soul”.

A budget amendment approved by the city board on March 28 authorizes the governing body to distribute ARPA money. How the distribution will occur has yet to be decided.

“Once they have a pretty good idea of ​​where they land on the budget, we have a very good lead time for the commission to make an informed decision on how to use really limited public funds, and even if it seems like a lot of money, it will be used quickly and efficiently,” Burton said.

Burton’s contract runs until December 31, but he said it could be extended. He said the city commission has expressed a need for him to stay on as acting city manager until the city returns to stability.

“When you have the mayor, the commission, myself, and all of the city staff focused on those three priorities, you’re going to see really good results pretty quickly because we’re all rowing in the same direction,” said- he declared. .

The city has not yet solicited nominations for the vacant position of chief executive.

“It just depends on when the mayor and the commission are comfortable doing it, so we’ll do it,” Burton said.