Perched in a corner office on the 12th floor of Phoenix’s downtown headquarters, David Cavazos has a bird’s eye view of the city’s growing amenities, including Arizona State University’s downtown campus, Chase Field, the US Airways Center and the Sheraton Hotel – all of which have emerged since he moved to Phoenix in 1987.
But the state’s once-booming economy is stalling, and Phoenix is struggling to come to grips with its own budget deficit estimated at $75 million.
Cavazos, a Chicago native, former varsity wrestler and offensive lineman, was recently appointed city manager for Phoenix. He also serves as the chairman of the board of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. He sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to talk about the city’s challenges, his new job and how to react to bad news.
What do you want to add to Phoenix as the new city manager?
I tell people the magic of Phoenix is to build upon city services. I have had two great teachers with Marvin Andrews and Frank Fairbanks.
What we’re known for is making sure we respond to citizens and making sure we have great financial management and the streets are safe. We have lots of challenges going forward because of the budget situation, but my first goal is to build upon the successes that we have to date.
What sort of lessons did you learn from Frank Fairbanks, who has retired after 19 years?
The biggest lesson was to be inclusive. Whenever we have a problem the solution lies in working together with the community, the mayor and the City Council. You have to include the stakeholders, the business community, the neighborhood groups so that when you do a project that is going to impact them you bring them on and have task forces so they can help us. (The goal is to determine) what is important to the business owners and how to make things more efficient, cut red tape and make less regulatory burden.
What kind of challenges does a city manager have balancing the goals that they have identified versus the political agendas or goals sought by council members or the mayor?
The goals for the city are going to come from the mayor and the City Council. They’re elected, they make policy. What I have to do is when those goals are given is to implement them in an efficient way. Our objectives are the same.
How does somebody know when you are mad?
I try to stay calm. I got that from Frank. You could go into his office with the most disastrous situation, and you’d think you’d get the most terrible reaction. But it was just, “Everything is going to work out and it’s going to be OK.” That’s something I want to emulate.
When I’m working with the council, what they’re saying is, “We love good news, but if you have bad news, just tell us right away and we’ll be OK.” I think the way you get people to tell you everything you need to know is you have to be calm and approachable. But, obviously, if I’m at home watching football…The other day, the ASU game just killed me.
So, it’s the Sun Devils over the Wildcats?
I’m not taking sides on that one. I didn’t go to either school, so I’m for the winner.
Phoenix, like everybody else, is in the grips of a severe budget deficit. What is your plan for addressing the budget shortfall?
We’re going to do what we have done before. We have to ask departments to live within their means. We have at this time around a $75 million shortfall. We have asked them to reduce their budgets and look at about 30 percent of their budgets from general funds and we asked public safety to look at about 15 percent of their budgets.
In the spring, in the April timeframe, we’re going to have to make the really tough decisions on what programs need to be reduced, eliminated, et cetera. We have worked really hard in prior years to minimize the impact on the public and to do more with less, but at the end of the day we are going to have to make the budget balanced.
Three years ago Prop. 207 passed, bringing changes to eminent domain and regulatory takings. Local governments were adamantly opposed to the initiative and claimed it would cripple land management. What sort of impacts has Phoenix felt as a result of the initiative?
We had a Prop. 207 committee work very closely with the Finance Department and the Law Department and the Planning Department. We have had a few situations where we have done some overlays. We have had the arts overlay downtown.
Basically, it’s a lot of work, and you don’t want to do anything that will lessen the value of the overlays. We haven’t had the kinds of issues that we anticipated, only because we worked so well with the people that would have been impacted.
The issues you anticipated were, for example, stalled projects?
We basically follow the law and sometimes there are some extra requirements and a lot of times people have to sign a waiver when there is a zoning change.
What sort of effects has the Goldwater Institute lawsuit against the CityNorth project had on Phoenix? Is this stunting economic growth?
There are two major issues right now. One is the economy, so a lot of major projects have not moved forward because of the economy and the lack of financing, the decrease in population growth and other things linked to the recession. We’re still working very hard to attract businesses and to generate jobs for the community. The case is active and we’re hoping the city is going to prevail.
What plans does the city have to help small businesses, not large developers building things like CityNorth?
There are a couple of reasons why businesses fail. One is the technical issues related to putting together a business plan. The second is access to capital. The third is getting to market and being able to sell your product.
We have had a small-business program aimed at dealing with all three of those issues. I have worked very hard to streamline the process because time is money for people. And we’ve done things like adaptive re-use – like if somebody wants to turn their house into a coffee shop, and before it was prohibitive because of the expenses of the street light, the alleyway and the paving and the sidewalks – we can minimize those regulations to help those small businesses.
What does Phoenix expect or want from the Legislature?
We’re hoping we’re all on the same page and we do everything possible for the best of Arizona. We’re hoping they keep their commitments, not to reduce state-shared revenue because we need to supply services to the community.