Managing for the new millennium
Six months ago, Mike Field decided that the time was right to begin talking about the revitalization of downtown Lubbock, Texas. As chairman of Market Lubbock, Inc., (MLI), the city’s economic development authority, Field had some ideas about how that revitalization should be accomplished and what it should entail.
Field met with Lubbock City Manager Bob Cass to discuss his proposals. “He and his staff had already discussed most of the ideas I had,” he says. “Plus, I was thinking about a year out. They were talking about three years. I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m glad he’s our city manager.'”
In the local government grammar world, “visionary” is not a noun that often shares a sentence with “city manager.” City managers are the grunt workers of the business, laboring in relative anonymity, while mayors and councilmembers blink in the spotlight’s glare. But in Lubbock, Cass has changed all that. He is, say a number of his associates, a visionary. After all, under his direction, Lubbock became the first city in the country to stage a Y2K preparedness drill.
That vision and Cass’s determination to put it to use for the betterment of the city where he was born have made Cass one of Lubbock’s most popular public servants. They also have made him the second city manager to be named American City & County’s Municipal Leader of the Year. (Phoenix’s Frank Fairbanks won the award in 1994.)
Cass never intended a career in city management. He went to college to be a teacher. Along the way, someone offered him an internship in the city manager’s office. He’s been a permanent fixture in the department since 1976, when he took a position as administrative assistant to the assistant city manager.
“My job is not glamorous,” he says. “But it is a different job every day. Mundane is not a word I would use to describe it.”
Considering what Cass – and the city’s elected leadership – have had to deal with over the past five years, mundane would have been a significant improvement. The city, population 196,000, lost Reese Air Force Base, one of its largest employers, in 1997.Shortly afterward, its two largest hospital systems merged, jeopardizing more jobs; and Texas Instruments, the largest private-sector employer in Lubbock, closed its plant.
All told, the city lost about 5,000 jobs, many of them difficult-to-replace, high-salaried technical positions. Even before the base and plant closures, however, Cass and the Lubbock City Council were working to minimize the damage. In 1995, they created MLI, a nonprofit corporation charged with leading the city’s economic development efforts.
Funded by the city but operated by a seven-member board made up of local business leaders, MLI has put together projects and programs that have replaced more than half the city’s lost jobs. It also has helped create more than $43 million in payroll dollars and more than $97 million in capital investment.
“Once the state passed legislation authorizing the creation of economic development authorities, we knew we were at a disadvantage because we didn’t have one,” Field says. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s set one up.’ It turned out to be a much bigger job than we thought. But Bob took the lead. He said, ‘Set it up like a private company. We’ll fund it, but we won’t interfere.’ And, by golly, he hasn’t.”
“You could always depend on him for quick and decisive action,” says Gary Lawrence, president of Norwest Bank and MLI chairman from 1995 to 1998. “He’s a very good reader of the council and its moods. We would come to him with an idea, and he always knew what the city would say. And, he knows the philosophy of this community. He can generally tell you if something will work.”
Lawrence’s respect for Cass stems from the city’s efforts to keep the Plains Cooperative Oil Mill, one of the biggest producers of cottonseed oil in the world, in Lubbock. Plains was planning a $30 million expansion, and competition from other cities in west Texas was serious. Lubbock won the battle by offering the company a low-cost, 99-year lease on 200 acres of city land.
“The key to the whole deal was Bob and his staff,” Lawrence says. “I give them all the credit. I have always found him to be creative, practical and intelligent. But he doesn’t go for the limelight. He’s not out leading the parade. He’s probably the most effective city manager I have ever known, and I’ve lived in three other cities.”
Field, too, lauds Cass’s unassuming intelligence. “He’s got more gray matter than most of the people he’s around,” he says. “He’s just smart, but he doesn’t try to impress you with it. I’m extremely impressed with his ability to grasp facts and do something with them.”
Now and then
Still, intelligence and vision alone cannot account for Cass’s success. That required cooperation, which the city’s leadership has in spades.
Lubbock suffers from none of the turf wars and political infighting that characterize some city manager-council-mayor relationships. In fact, the relationship between Cass’s office and the city’s elected leadership is one reason Lubbock has handled adversity so well.
“We’ve been blessed with stable political leadership,” Cass says. “I have always appreciated the fact that the council encourages an environment that allows people to express differences of opinion. We’ve fostered an attitude that values diversity of opinion and creates lots of discussion.”
“I think we have an unusually good relationship,” agrees Mayor Wendy Sitton. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for him both as a person and as a city manager, and I think that respect is reciprocal.”
Cass’s integrity, Sitton says, allows her to “go to bed every night not having to worry about the city.” Calling him “probably the most ethical, honest, straightlaced person I’ve ever known,” Sitton credits Cass with helping get a $37 million bond package passed in a city that traditionally treats bond packages like rattlesnakes.
Cass’s financial acumen also draws high praise from Sitton. As a result of slow tax growth and the uncertainty of sales tax revenues because of the city’s agricultural base, Cass and the city council initiated several cost-saving measures, among them: * privatization of the municipal golf course; * outsourcing of the city’s janitorial services; * hiring of civilian employees for public safety clerical work; and * privatization of some of the city’s park maintenance functions.
Sitton estimates that the city has saved $78 million since 1994 because of those measures.
But saving is only half the story. Under Cass’s leadership, the city also draws plaudits for its spending. Just last August, the local Chamber of Commerce issued a report praising the city for its spending on public safety. Additionally, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that the city is getting its money’s worth on transportation.
Cass’s focus on Lubbock’s present situation does not preclude attention to its future. In fact, Sitton uses the “V” word and says “one of his strengths is that he’s never complacent. He’s always looking into the future.”
To that end, Cass and the city have spearheaded efforts to develop nearby Lake Alan Henry as an alternative water source. And, this year, the city is slated to open a new landfill that will be the largest permitted landfill in the Southwest.
Cass’s involvement made both projects go smoothly, Sitton says. “This landfill is a big, big deal,” she says. “Getting permits from the regulatory agencies could have been a nightmare. But Bob got it up and going with very little opposition.”
The Y2K drill
What happens in Lubbock over the long haul is important to Cass, but what happens to Lubbock on Dec. 31, 1999, is what made him a national star of sorts. Cass started worrying about the Millennium Bug in 1996 when most people still thought Y2K was an airport code. That year, the city began identifying and cataloguing its embedded chips and setting priorities for fixing them. A Y2K task force began to test municipal systems, the most critical of which was the city-owned electric utility.
In September 1998, Lubbock staged the nation’s first Y2K drill, drawing the attention of media outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the British Broadcasting Network. (An ABC reporter asked Cass how he would respond to people who said he was “alarmist,” and he said, “I hope they are right.”)
“I have been through a lot of real-life exercises,” Cass says. “This one was different. It felt real. The exercise was designed to force us to fail. We lost electric power, which makes you realize how many things flow from electric power. It taxed our ability to communicate. It was bad, but it was basically what we anticipated. And it forced senior management to see that Y2K is more than just an abstract condition. We’re a standalone city. We’re 400 miles from Dallas, so we have to deal with things on our own.”
The drill vaulted a reluctant Cass onto the national stage. He has testified before Congress on the issue and has traveled to numerous cities to offer advice. He seems to be as popular for his job title as he is for his Y2K expertise.
“We were planning a Y2K exercise in Columbus (Ohio),” says Danielle Steinmetz, program coordinator for The Innovation Group, a Cincinnati-based company that works with local governments to solve myriad problems. “We wanted someone from Lubbock to come up and talk about their exercise. Luckily, I got Bob. So our program drew a lot of city managers. It went very well.”
An easy call
Cass involves himself in everything from landfills to computer chips for one reason: He was born and raised in Lubbock and is committed to making it a better place to live. “I have never met a city manager who was so into his jurisdiction,” Steinmetz says. “A lot go from job to job, but Bob loves where he lives and what he’s doing.”
That affection is returned by the city’s residents. City management fares well on frequent citizen surveys, with most services rated “excellent” or “good.” (What was perceived by some as the city’s slow response to June floods dropped the overall performance rating just seven points; in 1998, 69 percent of respondents rated city services “excellent” or “good.” After the floods, that number was 62 percent.)
Cass credits his staff with helping maintain such numbers, and Sitton, to a large extent, agrees. “He creates an atmosphere in his workplace so that his employees help neutralize what he perceives as his weaknesses,” she says. “When you have that kind of atmosphere, you get more out of people. He’s not a control fanatic. Most city managers require their employees to go through the city manager when dealing with other city employees. He has an open door policy. We can talk to any one of his employees at any time. He has surrounded himself with some of the best people in the state, and he lets them do their jobs.”
Cass does not see all that as such a big deal. To him, being the city manager in Lubbock is an easy call. “I like my job,” he says. “I know people who don’t like theirs, but I like my job.”