In 1987, David Cavazos was making $9.60 an hour as a city of Phoenix intern, already dreaming of the city manager position he would take over 22 years later.
Prescott’s Steve Norwood, on the other hand, had never planned to follow in the footsteps of his father’s “boring” career as a city manager.
Whether after years of planning or by chance, public policy officials have come from throughout the state and country to manage Arizona’s cities and towns, driven by the desire to implement projects that produce tangible results.
And, despite deep budget cuts and foregone raises, those interviewed by Cronkite News Service say they find their jobs fulfilling.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You were picked at the absolute best time, because nothing could get worse,’ … and I’ve had other people who tell me this is the worst time to be city manager,” said Cavazos, who took over for Frank Fairbanks in 2009. “I’m just dealing with what I have, making the best of it.”
It’s easy to assume that no one could possibly enjoy being a city manager during an economic downturn, said Jim Svara, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation.
“It’s actually just the opposite,” Svara said. “In these conditions, city managers feel that their highest level of talent is called upon … [They] can really help a community through.”
Cavazos came in at an undeniably tough time for Phoenix, with the city experiencing a $65 million budget shortfall that quickly multiplied. He is credited with ultimately creating a budget surplus through wage negotiations with labor unions, a 2 percent food tax and other measures.
In Prescott, Norwood started freezing positions in 2007, eventually eliminating about 13 percent of his workforce. He said he also aggressively reduced overtime and travel expenses, moves that helped the city avoid furloughs and left Prescott’s rainy-day fund untouched.
Mayor Marlin Kuykendall said Prescott’s smaller size allowed for a close working relationship with Norwood while trying to resolve the city’s budget problems.
“We [the mayor and council] try to give the city manager enough latitude, enough flexibility to run the city as a business,” he said. “But Steve and I, we probably visit several times a day. We talk about everything from the smallest details to the big picture.”
Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson worked with elected officials to identify health, safety and cleanliness as critical goals and “made cuts to anything that wasn’t a direct part of that mission,” a process he likened to an individual prioritizing necessary personal expenses and extras.
“If you have a reduction in your monthly income, you have to make some tough decisions: eliminate cable, maybe not eating out as often or not taking a vacation,” he said. “You may not like those decisions, your family may not like those decisions… But you make those decisions because you have to.”
City managers have taken hits to their own compensation as well, some voluntarily. Cavazos wasn’t offered the possible $40,000 bonus stipulated in his predecessor’s contract and won’t soon be getting a raise. Norwood, Davidson and Mesa City Manager Christopher Brady haven’t had a raise in two or more years.
With that in mind, ASU’s Svara said he believes Arizona’s managers “work very hard at trying to make scarce public funds go far” despite public distrust and a general lack of awareness of city managers’ heavy workloads. Duties include everything from coordinating projects and mediating conflicts between departments to providing policy advice and recommendations to the mayor and city council.
Brady acknowledged that the work “can be very challenging and difficult,” but the challenges are outweighed by the satisfaction of working on projects that make him feel like he’s made a city a better place to live.
“The work that you do in this job, you see the results,” he said.
Cronkite News Service reporter David Rookhuyzen contributed to this report.