“I’ve found that having a direct contact with folks in their own environment is better than saying, ‘Come down here to City Hall and let’s talk.’
“I’ve always found that when I get out of the office and go see people where they’re at, they’re more comfortable, they’ll talk better,” he added. “You get frank and honest comments. When you’re brand new, you need that.”
Paine said he has made these contacts a priority in part because the success of city government is tied in part to success of business community.
“Particularly in a retail environment, if you have a healthy retail sector, we get a pile of sales tax money to do things we don’t have to get from other people via property tax,” he said.
But another motivation for making the contacts is to establish a positive working relationship from the start.
“It helps when things go break in the night to say, ‘Please cut me slack when things go wrong’—and things will go wrong,” he said.
Paine also wants to hear what community leaders want for their city. At each stop, Paine is leaving a list of five questions that he wants them to respond to:
1. What are the three most important things about Hillsboro that we need to preserve, and why?
2. What are the three most important things about Hillsboro we need to change, and why?
3. What are the things you are most hopeful that I do as city administrator?
4. What are the things you are most concerned about that I might do as city administrator?
5. What advice do you have?
Paine said it’s too early in the process to categorize the responses, but he has drawn some conclusions about the attitude of Hillsboro residents.
“I’m pretty impressed with how people think about their community,” he said. “There’s a positive attitude here.
“The general tone of this community is different than Concordia is. We have people here who really want to support their town. I can see that from just two weeks and the number of visits I’ve had in this transition period.
“(They’re saying) ‘Hey, I like my town, I want to do what I can do to help my town. Let me know what I can do, don’t let me get in the way—and don’t you screw it up,’” Paine added with a chuckle.
The other thing Paine has discovered is that people see value in simply meeting their city administrator face-to-face.
“The one thing I’m really getting feedback from the visits is that the city administrator has graced the threshold of their doors—for me to show up and say, “Hi, I’m Larry. I’d like to get to know you and your business and hear what you have to say.’”
Down to business
One of Paine’s first tasks since taking charge has been to pull together the 2008 budget. Because of the timing of his transition, Paine actually developed two city budgets this year—one for Concordia and one for Hillsboro.
“The level of comfort I have on (Hillsboro’s) budget is not nearly to the degree that I’d like it to be because I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with it,” said Paine, who said he made a half dozen trips to Hillsboro before officially taking office.
His involvement in Hillsboro’s budget process led him to at least one initial conclusion: the city’s rates for water, electricity, sewer and refuse are in dire need of analysis—and likely an increase.
“I’m looking at this from the standpoint that this past year we spent more money than we brought in for each one of them,” he said. “We’ve got some areas that really need attention.”
Paine said water rates are the most critical.
“There’s a $20,000-odd cash balance there that should be a $200,000 to $300,000 cash balance,” he said. “We made some changes in facilities where there is bonding in place, and now it’s coming due. There’s a requirement for an outgoing check now that hasn’t been there in the past.”
Similarly, the end of the city’s current contract with Westar Energy and the start of Hillsboro’s participating in the Kansas Power Pool will require financial adjustments, too.
In the coming fiscal year, Paine said his goal is to match revenue with expenses, dollar for dollar. To get there, he is projecting rate adjustments before the end of 2007.
Administratively, Paine said he is working to decentralize the oversight of departmental budgets. He wants supervisors to manage their own budgets.
“I really feel, in one sense, sorry for them because they haven’t had the hands-on experience of managing their own budgets for the last little while,” he said.
“The dilemma at this point is to let them grow into that new experience. My job is to teach them and coach them and give them the ability to grow into that new responsibility.”
Paine said he is encouraged by their initial response.
“People are more than happy to be responsible for the areas that they’re responsible for,” Paine said.
By relinquishing personal control, Paine said he can do the job he feels he was hired to do: to see and guide the big picture while leaving day-to-day job management to supervisors.
“We still have to have the communication process,” he added. “There are degrees of freedom: act on your own, act and advise, and wait to be told. I don’t want to be on the latter part. I want to work in an environment where it’s ‘act and then advise.’”