Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interview with Allen Bogard, City Manager, Sugar Land Texas.

by Andrew Nelson

Editor’s note: This interview is the first in a series of conversations I had with managers at the ICMA Annual Conference in Milwaukee. Each of these managers represents a city or county that has offered or is currently offering Management Fellowships – one- to two-year postgraduate work and mentoring experiences that help new MPAs and MPPs get their feet wet in city management.

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Every year, the Romney Institute of Public Management sends a large group of its local government students to the ICMA Annual Conference. This trip often serves as the first encounter many of the students have with professional managers, their staff, and private sector firms providing services to municipalities.

One of the activities that students from the Romney Institute (Brigham Young University) do every year is network directly with managers and professionals while on the exhibition hall floor. BYU rents a space for students to discuss careers in city management with other participants, network for internships or jobs, promote the institute’s student-led local government consulting group, and showcase the Romney Institute’s dynamic and practical-based program.

I was in Milwaukee for the conference with my fellow BYU MPAs, working the booth and trying to talk to as many managers as I possibly could. One thing I’ve noticed about city managers is their willingness to share their love for their careers. While working the booth, I saw a nametag – City Manager, Sugar Land, Texas. By itself, this city probably would have blended in with the thousands of other names I didn’t recognize. However, my best friend had served a Mormon mission to Sugar Land several years ago and loved the area. The name had stuck in my head. I made the connection and started a conversation with Sugar Land’s manager, Allen Bogard (see photo below).

After a short chat at our booth, I learned that Allen has hired management assistants in the past (also known as management fellows, management interns, analyst trainee, or “management analyst I” in other jurisdictions). During our chance meeting, we were able to discuss his successful career from changing tractor tires for the city of Dallas to becoming the manager of Sugar Land and how a new grad can break into the city management field with the help of a management fellowship.

How did you get started in city management?

Oh goodness. I wanted to be a lawyer and I was on my own through college and my grades weren’t good enough. I had a girlfriend who wanted to get married and I learned about a graduate program at the University of North Texas that taught people how to be city managers. That sounded like something that was very interesting to me.

It sounded like I could satisfy my desire to do public service and it was also a career that looked good to me so I went ahead and joined that program. That’s where I got my master’s degree. I got a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas-Arlington in Political Science.

I got married and within three months of bumming cigarette money off of my new wife (who was a nurse) I decided I had to go get me a job. I went ahead and got a job with the city of Dallas changing tractor tires and doing just about anything else that I could. I worked through a number of different positions with Dallas and ended up being a budget analyst. Then I left to work for the city of Plano. That’s about when I finished up my master’s up in North Texas. I primarily worked in the Public Works area. I became a director reporting to the city manager. I was still pretty young at the time. I had already worked for Dallas for three years. I was with Plano for seven years during which time the city grew from 60,000 to 120,000 and in Public Works, that’s excellent experience.

A change in leadership – the city manager was retiring – was not in alignment with my successful continued growth. At that point I decided to take my first city manager’s job.

Where was that?

A little town in East Texas named Winnsboro. Only three or four thousand people. It was quite a change from the metropolis [of Plano and Dallas], but I loved it. In ’85, I was 31. In a small town, you do a little bit of everything. When small kids come into my office, often the first thing they notice is a picture of me riding an elephant in the circus. It’s illustrative of the number of roles you play in a small town. I personally think that is very satisfying. It’s very exciting because you never know what you’re going to be dealing with next.

It’s so interesting to hear how people arrived where they are. There really is no one “best” system to get into city management.

That’s right. I kind of did both [starting in a large city v. a small city]. That’s kind of a regular conversation with people in my organization. I always encourage them to keep an eye open outside. I have mixed emotions because I want to keep people for as long as I can. At the same time, I want them to be thinking about “When is the right time to make that move?” There is a good time and it’s not just when the opportunity opens up, but also the right mix of your family makeup. The longer you stay in a Plano or a Sugar Land, the higher your compensation becomes, the harder it becomes to make that transition…or if you’ve got kids or a wife, if she has a job. The more complications you have in your life the more difficult it becomes to make the transition. It’s an important issue.

So tell me a little more about Sugar Land.

Sugar Land is a town of about 85,000. It is demographically upper-end income housing. It is very rich in the sense that it has a very strong business base. We’ve been very successful in attracting a diversity of commercial development. We have about an equal amount of retail, office, and industrial space. It is largely oil-related as is Houston, but Minute Maid, for example, has its corporate headquarters there. There are several large engineering firms there. We probably have 40,000 plus jobs in the city. We are the retail marketplace for southwest side of Houston out into Fort Bend County, which is our county. As you continue to the southwest, there is not another retail marketplace until you get to Corpus Christi. Our mall and retail areas are very significant sources of revenue. We’re always making sure that we maintain that revenue stream. We have about 50% of our general fund through sales tax. Over the years our sales tax has allowed us to lower our property tax rate and we actually have the second lowest property tax rate in the state for cities over 50,000. That’s good in a way, but it also makes us more reliant on sales tax, which can be cyclical, and is something that we have to pay close attention to. So we do some things to manage our money so that’s not a problem.

We’re AAA bond rated. We had Fitch and this year we got Standard and Poor’s, so we’re real pleased about that. It’s something that takes a long time to accomplish.

Has there been a lot of job turnover in the city in Sugar Land?

We are finding ourselves to be a place where people come to steal my employees. That’s one of the things that happen when you’re successful. You can’t begrudge anybody. So we’ve had a lot of turnover specifically in the economic development area. Actually I think it’s going to end up working in our best interest. Not that the folks that were working in those areas weren’t doing a good job. We had a change in leadership in that department a few years ago. The new director wanted to have a staff with more economic development expertise and experience than [the previous director]. As the turnover occurred, we’ve been able to increase the stature and capacity of that department.

What’s the biggest concern facing the city of Sugar Land?

We are arriving at a point where continuing to afford to invest in capital improvements will require us to raise the tax rate. The city hasn’t had a tax rate increase – and in fact has basically reduced the tax rate every year for the last twenty years – because of the growth of sales tax receipts. The net effect of that is that we no longer have the financial capacity within the tax rate in a low growth economy to be able to continue to invest in new capital projects, not only because of the cost of the debt service, but more importantly the ability to maintain and operate whatever it is we want to build. I’ve had to refine my message, educate my elected officials and eventually the community on the idea that we need to seriously consider raising the tax rate. And politically that just hasn’t been feasible up to this point. We are beginning to talk about having a bond election and using that election process as the manner in which the elected officials can get permission from the public. If the voters don’t approve it…well, I have a $186 million budget this year. We have a declining debt service obligation, the way we have structured our debt conservatively in the past, which means that we have capacity opening up within the same debt service tax rate over the next five years that would allow us to invest in rehabilitation and more “needs” as I call them, about $60 million. So we can rehabilitate the streets, we can maintain everything that we have. We just can’t go out and build more parks.

And we have to stop landscaping everything… I mean, if you stand still too long you’re going to get flowers planted in your hair. (both laugh)

Parks are expensive to maintain. We’re going to have to go through the process of a bond election to allow the financing for the “wants.” I’ve basically split our five-year CIP into two parts this year. The part that we’re going to fund based upon the revenue stream that we had over the next five years. And the list of “wants,” the things that we want to do but do not currently have a funding source for with conservative economic projections. Of course, if the economy explodes and takes off, it’ll be a different picture. For now, that’s the biggest challenge that we’d face.

The other one is the award that we’re getting for our very diverse community. We are now 35% Asian. It is largely Chinese and Indian. We have a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque. Those parts of our community are coming to Sugar Land because it has an excellent school system. It’s very stable for property values. It’s got a very good reputation as a good place to live, a safe place to live. Well maintained. It’s very orderly. For the Asian community, that’s right up their alley. Those parts of our community are growing. We have to teach a city organization that is primarily people that look like me to know enough about the Hindus and the Muslims and the Chinese to make sure we are providing services to them that meet their needs. That is an unusual characteristic that we have been working on and trying to respond to by reaching out to those communities and having them come in and teach us about not only their culture and where they come from but also the makeup of their community in Sugar Land. For example, we have learned about the concerns that Indian families have about losing their young people. In other words, these are first generation, they have their young people in the school system and they begin to gravitate away from the culture that the family would like them to follow. Things like that are important to know. We are making sure that we have parks department events that are inclusive of their cultures but also bring them into the Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo and so forth. So that’s a set of different challenges that we are dealing with there. We think it’s a strength. They are excellent citizens. And they are very appreciative of their city government.

Let’s talk about your Management Assistant program. How many times have you offered the program?

We’ve had an internship program for years. As a matter of fact, my public works director came to the city as an intern ten to twelve years ago and worked his way up to director of Public Works. We have three generations of Management Assistants. The first one, one of the participants is my assistant to the city manager. I fondly refer to her as Bogard’s brain because she serves that role for me. A second generation intern just took a small town city manager’s position in Wisconsin. We’ve been organizing a two-year temporary position hopefully with a starting salary that can allow you to live - not well but live - and they work with the Assistant City Managers and myself. Jennifer May the assistant to [the city manager] helps to provide linkage and support. Most of them have gone on to find a position with the city of Sugar Land at the end of the two-year period, somewhere within the departments in a role that either evolves while they’re there or in some cases we’ve realized this is somebody that we want to keep and so we’ve made things happen we’ve hired them as budget analysts.

One thing we’ve been looking at doing right now is attempting to reorient that program to overlap with our budget analysts to where there would be a shared resource that would concentrate on one of my assistant city managers’ areas which are public safety, public services or finance administration and let the MAs be not only working on strategic projects but also supporting those departments from a budget perspective. So I’ve got budget analysts who want to get involved in strategic projects and supporting the departments and I personally believe that there’s nothing a City Manager needs to know more than finance—not because that was my background just because that’s how you control things. So we’re trying to mix that up to where our MAs are going to have a broader breadth of experience.

Is it a difficult sell to your council to fund those positions?

Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I started out and just did it because it was the right thing to do. I funded it out of salary savings so I didn’t budget it. Over the years we have budgeted it, this last year we went through a scaling back of our finances to get us back into structural balance and we eliminated about eighteen positions so I don’t have any of the MA positions –well, I’ve got MAs but they’re MA IIs, they’re more full-time, permanent positions—I did not specifically fund the MA program as approved positions, but I’ve got the ability within the budget to create those positions with temporary savings because they’re temporary positions. The City Council has been tremendously supportive of the program once I was ready to roll it out… they recognize the value of young people coming into the organization—they see people leaving, they want to see good young people coming in—and that’s one of the things that they look to me to do is to be aggressive in bringing those people into our organization and they have seen a tremendous amount of success, so it’s well received.

Have you noticed any trends, positive or negative, coming from the recent MPA grads from around the country?

I had someone mention one the other day that I really hadn’t thought about but I’ll steal theirs, and that was the social skills that the MPA students are coming out with nowadays. It appears to me that the schools are doing a better job than when I went, helping MPA students learn the importance of networking, interacting with the professional groups, like what you’re doing now, and that certainly wasn’t a part of the program that I graduated out of and as a matter of fact I could have benefited tremendously if I could have been in those types of environments. I think it made it harder for me to be successful because I didn’t have that kind of a background that made it easy for me to talk to people that I didn’t know and so forth. People joke now because all I ever do is talk but I remember talking to people on the phone and just you know having terrible anxiety… anyway, those social skills I think are extremely valuable.

Other than that, we’ve been attracting some really top-notch young people to our organization and they’re very hungry and you have to feed them. That’s something that does take some effort on the organization’s part to make sure that you are feeding that passion that they have. If you don’t then it’s not going to be the best situation, you need to reward that passion and help them find challenges and get involved in things.

What do you think about changing the stigma of internships towards a more “apprenticeship” notion?

I like that. I understand what you’re saying relative to the connotation of the term “intern,” but we use it much more broadly than just for MPA types, we have interns that come in for the parks department, interns that come in to the engineering department, so it’s much broader than just in the city manager’s office… what we’ve done in the past is primarily try to tie an intern or management assistant to one of the Assistant City Managers and that has worked pretty well I think to keep them engaged in things.

Although I am interested in continuing to do the internship program I really believe that the MA program for us is something that is more significant both for the organization that gets something out of the investment and for the student to be able to have that first opportunity at a job, a real live paying job with benefits, and really be given the opportunity to be able to earn your way into a more permanent situation. In our case our community is very well respected in the region and the state of Texas, and I think the young people that come there have a benefit that will accrue with them in the future for having been associated with our city—I don’t mean that to sound egotistical or anything but it was the exact same thing for me working for the city of Plano back in the day. Plano was kind of the epitome of city management and whenever I could put that down on my resume it made a whole lot of difference.

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