Friday, March 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Betsy Fretwell was appointed Las Vegas city manager in January, replacing Douglas Selby, who retired. Fretwell had served as deputy city manager since 2002 and before that was Henderson’s intergovernmental relations director.
She talked to In Business about her management style and about taking over as city manager at a time when Las Vegas is facing a budget deficit and the country is in the midst of a severe economic downturn.
IBLV: What is the city manager’s role, as you see it?
Fretwell: It’s basically the chief administrative officer — the person responsible for all of the day-to-day activities. At the city, there are two areas that are excluded from that, and they are the legal department and the auditing department. Everything else falls under my umbrella of responsibility.
It seems to be a little bit of a balancing act. The city manager has the real power in a council/manager form of government, but the City Council appoints the city manager. Is it a tough balance?
I don’t know that it’s necessarily tough. It requires quite a bit of communication and understanding and some dialogue about implementation strategies and the policies that the council sets forth. So, it’s work, I won’t say that it’s not a lot of work, but it is fun and it’s challenging. And there is never a dull day in this job.
You were the assistant city manager for some time and that position also carries a lot of responsibility. What is the biggest difference in that job and the position of city manager?
Well, there is the accountability piece of the puzzle, but I also think it’s making the transition from a little more of an operational focus to a leadership role. It’s making sure that we’re getting the things done that the council needs to get done in a timely manner, but also keeping our eye on the big picture and the total game. It’s a little bit of a transition for me, although I have to say that working with Doug (former City Manager Douglas Selby), we had such a good partnership and we made such a good team — there was a lot of inclusion as we looked at the strategic outlook of the city. So, I don’t think that transition will be too tough for me. It’s just a matter of making sure we have the right people doing the right things to get the issues addressed.
You mentioned leadership — what is your leadership style?
I’m very results-oriented and always have been. I’m pretty persistent and really goal-oriented. Oftentimes that means I want to understand the issue and understand what’s happening so that I can really get a good feel for the impact on the staff. But I’m also cognizant that they need the latitude and the discretion to do the job the best way they can. A key part of delegating is to give a clear overview of what we are trying to accomplish and let those folks who are very competent figure out how we are going to get it done.
You have come into this position during a difficult time, economically. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the city over the next couple of years?
By far, it’s the financial situation — no question about it.
That’s got to be extremely challenging because the amount of money in the budget is pretty much out of your control. How do you resolve the budget issues when you have so many services to provide and so little control over the amount of money that is coming in?
There are probably a whole lot of people in this community, and this country, who feel that their ability to control this situation is pretty limited. We just have to take that in stride and do what we can within the framework we’ve been given. That means staying focused on our core services with the resources we do have available and doing our best to continue to provide the services that the community needs in the most cost-efficient way possible.
When this position came open, I think it’s fair to say you were the top candidate right away. Did you have any reservations about taking the position with all of the challenges you knew you would be facing because of the budget and the economy?
I didn’t flinch. I have aspired to be a city or a county manager from graduate school going forward and have built my career to try to prepare myself for a position such as this one. I’m just flattered that I get the opportunity to work with such a wonderful mayor and council that believe in me and think I’m the right person to help them lead this organization through, you know, a pretty tumultuous time.
Despite the power of the city manager in this type of municipal government, Selby kept a pretty low profile. Those who know how government works knew he ran things, but maybe the public didn’t always see that. Will you be more visible than he was?
For me, it’s not really about visibility. I do think it’s important for civic leaders to be engaged in community activities. I’ve always been very passionate about that and have been involved in a variety of activities the entire time I have been here. I think the mayor and the council are the ones who make the policy decisions. They are the ones who are directly accountable to the people. It’s their role, in my mind, to be the ones who communicate what we are doing as a city. If they choose to use me in that capacity, to get the message out, absolutely I am happy to do that. I think that is really their call, and I defer to them on that front.
Everyone has an opinion about Mayor Oscar Goodman. What is yours?
I think he’s fabulous. I’ve grown accustomed to his style and I think we make a good team and I enjoy working with him. People kind of laugh when I say I wake up every morning and get my marching orders in the paper, which is really unique. But really, we work well together and communicate together and I think that makes us a really good team.
There are going to be a lot of changes on the council in the next few years because of term limits. The mayor will be gone and some council members will either be gone or in different roles. Will that have any effect on the way you run your office?
Obviously, new policymakers coming in may have specific things they are trying to accomplish and we would need to adapt to that. They are voted in by the citizens of the city and if the citizens want certain things out of their local government, that elected official is there to represent those views and decide what’s best for the city. Obviously, we will adapt to those changes. In fact, I was talking with department heads this morning about being adaptable and flexible in times of change. That’s what we’ve got to do to continue to achieve our mission, and regardless of who is at the helm pushing the buttons on the dais, we’ll be ready for that.
Let’s talk about the redevelopment agency, which has come under a lot of fire recently, whether it is warranted or unwarranted has been the subject of much debate…
I don’t think there is much debate.
All right, what is your opinion of how the office is run now?
I think we are hitting a stride. I’m thrilled with the things that our redevelopment agency has been able to accomplish. As you know, the mayor’s vision has been to be a catalyst in downtown to revitalize the urban area. We’ve got a changing skyline when politicians and boards before struggled to try and get any projects to take hold and be successful. We have many such projects under our belt in the last five years now. I’m really proud of what we have been able to accomplish. When there is fierce competition for resources, people look at everything, and there is nothing wrong with having the dialogue about it. But the reality is, you don’t want to cut something that is successful, as the redevelopment agency has been, in my opinion. You want to ride that for all it’s worth.
Are you concerned that because there is this dispute or debate, it could affect projects in the pipeline and make developers more reluctant to come here?
Clearly it is going to have an impact. We have a lot of projects in the pipeline now and with the economy the way it is, that is also having an impact on projects and some more than others. I think anytime you are under what I would consider a full frontal attack, it makes people want to wait and see who is on the prevailing side. We’re just hoping we can put this thing to rest and get moving with the job we have before us. RDA has been very successful at creating jobs, private investment and living opportunities in the downtown area. That is exactly what redevelopment is supposed to do, and we’ve been accomplishing that. I just hope we have a chance to finish it.
How concerned are you about the potential for redirecting revenue in the current legislative session and the effect that could have on the city?
We have been meeting with legislators throughout the interim to share with them our financial situation and to share what we have been trying to do to address it. I’m very proud that, unlike many other cities across the country, we are not going to the Legislature asking for help right now. We could be, but we have been trying to manage our own house without having an adverse impact on the state. That being said, we still have a $30 million annual deficit that is likely to grow because of the recent continued decline in sales tax revenues and likely decline in property tax revenues. When you’ve already got well over 200 positions that have been eliminated for the city in last year and a $46 million reduction in our budget, we’re doing everything we can to manage without it impacting the state and we’re hoping that they recognize we’re in the same revenue picture that they are. We are dependent on the same revenues that they are so the trends they’re seeing are the trends we’re seeing and we have different jobs to do. We have many of the local programs to provide, they’ve got statewide programs to provide and they are all important. We are hoping that the state legislators will recognize all of that as they try to figure out how to fill their holes because we are doing the exact same thing.
Have you gotten any indication that they recognize that and recognize the effort that has been made in Las Vegas?
Yes, actually. In some of our earlier briefings it seemed that many of the legislators really appreciated what we were doing. Our fundamental service review process, I think, led the way. In many instances we had other local governments looking at us saying, “Why are you cutting your budgets now?” and “this too shall pass” or “don’t worry about it yet.” Our response was that we didn’t think this was going to be a fast recovery and we are not to the bottom yet. So I really think many of the state legislators who we’ve talked to recognize that we tried to get a handle on this quickly and have been adapting almost every two weeks to try and address these shortfalls and still provide the best public service that we can.
At a City Council meeting months ago, when things were just starting to really go downhill, you made the comment that the city was already in full-response mode. What did you see then that made you begin to prepare for what has now become a brutal downturn?
We, in a way, are kind of the first indicator for a lot of the other governments, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because we are larger and slower growing, we went into this first. They lagged behind because they may not have been feeling the same impacts as early as we were.
Were you surprised at the community outcry over the D Street and F Street issues, from a community that is not traditionally very vocal on policy decisions, at least not publicly?
There is ongoing litigation, so I am really limited as to what I can say about the (Interstate) 15 widening and the F Street and D Street closure issues. The council voted (in January) to get the moneys allocated to ensure that D Street stays open through the D-F connector, and I guess we will just have to see what happens as a result of the lawsuit.
Let’s talk about the budget. There were cuts in the general fund in 2008 and more cuts in 2009. How much will be cut when all is said and done?
As you know from our October workshop, on top of the 3 percent additional cuts that were made this year, we’ve also identified another $20 million that we are taking out of our budget again, so we are really looking at a range of between 8 (percent) and 14 percent in cuts by the time this is all said and done, going into this fiscal year 2010 budget. Some of the service areas have been impacted more than others, that’s not an across-the-board cut, obviously.
Many of the city employees, through their unions, agreed to open up the collective bargaining agreements and take cuts. There is still some talk that maybe the city’s projections are optimistic and those employees may be asked to take more cuts. Is that a possibility?
We made a decision that we are going to only revise our fiscal forecast every six months, because if we responded every month we’d be on a roller coaster. So in March we will revisit the fiscal forecast. Based on what we knew in October, when we assembled a panel of outside financial experts to look at our model, we felt pretty confident in the projections that we took to the council. Obviously, there has been a significant decline in sales tax and property tax proceeds since then and we may need to revise our financial model as a result of that. I have to commend the employee unions that have come forward to date. Two of our larger employee unions have agreed to concessions and I think that’s a real testament to their understanding of the issue and their willingness to work with us to get through these really tough times.
The mayor brought up at the State of the City that regardless of what happens with current employees, the model will have to change for new city employees. Do you agree?
Obviously, the council said that we need to do things differently. We don’t want to get in this boat again in the future where contractual obligations exceed our revenue on a regular basis. That’s not good fiscal policy. Clearly we have to do something to stabilize on that front, so we will continue to do that. As I have said before, we don’t get to reset those contracts every time we sit down and talk with our bargaining leaders, we have to start from where we are and it’s a negotiation. It’s not a one side takes all unless we have to go to an arbitrator. So it’s going to take a lot of effort to work through that.
You mentioned the positions that have been eliminated. Will there be more staff reductions?
We are actually going through a reduction in force again in the building and safety enterprise fund. It’s really unfortunate, but the work is just not there and the revenue is not there and it’s really a tragic consequence of the current economic climate. I’ve told our employees that my feeling is that we need to do our best to preserve our community services and doing that means trying to preserve jobs. And it doesn’t do us any good to put more people on the unemployment rolls if we can avoid it. So that’s where I stand on that, and we’ll do our best to try to sustain our services and hopefully our bargaining leaders will work with us to obtain those goals as we go forward.
Might you ask for additional concessions?
I guess based on the financial projections that we’re looking at in the recent months worth of data, there is a potential for that. I think we have an obligation to make sure we leave no stone left unturned, and that we are living up, as best we can, to the recommendations we made in October, and we are making progress in implementing those that could create some cost savings. We will continue to work on those fronts and it may require additional discussions.
If there are cuts in services, what areas will be most affected?
I think it’s a little premature to go into specific things. You know that we have already cut back on hours in community centers, senior centers and pools and have been adapting bus routes and a variety of other things. We have been trying to focus our savings efforts on things that are invisible to the customer — you know, really cutting back on internal service kinds of things. If we have to make further adjustments, I think we will probably impact community services and that’s another whole level of discussions that will have to unfold and probably require some community input if we move forward in that direction.
You have always done the “Las Vegas Town Hall” shows with the mayor on KCLV (the city’s TV station). Will you continue to do those?
Yes, if he still wants to do them. I think I’m still on the game plan for that.
You graduated from the University of Georgia, but you are originally from a small town in South Carolina. I hear you have gotten a little bit of feedback from your old hometown.
Yes, it’s been kind of interesting to hear from a bunch of my elementary school friends, and my parents have certainly been feeling a little bit of this ride with me at home. It’s been very fun and I think everybody has been getting a pretty good bit of excitement out of this.
Are you the local celebrity now?
(Laughs) I haven’t been back since all of this has happened, but I’ve been hearing from people I haven’t heard from in a long time.
What are the next few years going to look like in Las Vegas, in your opinion? Are we in for a tough time?
This city is resilient and we’ve got a great team of employees, executives and political leaders. I do think that this will be a challenge, but I absolutely think we will come out stronger for it at the end of this economic downturn that we are experiencing and that’s a good thing. It makes us focus on critical issues and critical services and figure out the best way to get those things done. At the end of the day, I think we will be just fine.
Is the silver lining that more people will recognize the need to diversify our local economy?
We (the city government) have been focusing on diversification for quite some time and I think that we’re fortunate for that. I just think that we are in a really unique period of time where a lot of intense economic factors hit at the same time. If we were the only city, or the only state going through this, then you might be able to point to specific factors that have created this situation. Clearly, we are not.
What message do you want to send the people of Las Vegas?
I just would say that I hope that despite the budget issues, one of the things that I think is critical going forward is for us to try to continue to create an accountable and transparent government here and that we try to use our taxpayer resources to the absolute best outcome for our citizens. Those are my guiding principles, and I really think those are critical going forward.