The News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida)
BYLINE: By, Don Ruane
He is expected to come 1,300 miles and inherit a city preparing to start another utility project, trying to attract business and fighting through the toughest economic times of its short history.
John Szerlag, the city manager in Troy, Mich., is the Cape Coral City Council’s choice to take over the same position after a 7-1 vote Monday.
Szerlag, 61, succeeds Gary King as the city’s 10th manager in its 42-year history. King was fired in December.
“I am honored that council has confidence in my abilities,” said Szerlag, who must finish his budget for Troy, which has its cycle from July 1 through June 30. Should a contract be worked out, he will start here in May.
Szerlag knows the issues here probably start with a water and sewer project that could cost residents hooking up to the system more than $15,000 each. He also knows attracting business to a community that lacks tax dollars from an 8 percent commercial base is a top priority.
He also is not afraid to argue his staff’s position, if it is necessary.
“You make recommendations as the way to go, but if they say, “OK, John, it is time to stop talking, we are going this way,’ then you move on. That philosophy has served me well,” Szerlag said.
His style is to lead by example.
“I will talk first with the mayor and council and determine their priorities,” Szerlag said. “The worst thing you can do is have problems and solve them without talking to council.”
“The individual is going to have to lean heavily on the background and knowledge of the staff,” Councilman Marty McClain said.
Szerlag served as Troy’s city manager twice. The second time he was asked to return by the Troy council to handle a financial crisis when a key corporation moved out of town.
“That is a feather in his cap. I don’t think we can say that about any of the past city managers of Cape Coral,” Councilman Chris Chulakes-Leetz said. “We need a problem-solver.”
Councilman Lenny Nesta was the dissenter in the vote. In his mind, Szerlag doesn’t have the ability to handle situations such as working with a union taking a hardline position with the city, said Nesta, a former firefighter with the city.
Szerlag must pass a background check and negotiate the contract that could cover two years. He currently makes $133,000 annually, recently taking a $7,000 pay cut before asking his employees to also take cuts. His salary range here will be between $120,000 and $195,000.
Councilwoman Rana Erbrick, along with city attorney Dolores Menendez and Colin Baenziger, who conducted the manager’s search, are to work out the deal with Szerlag.
If Szerlag and the city cannot come to terms, the council tabbed Mark Needham, special assistant to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, as its No. 2 choice.
Szerlag will jump into the middle of Cape Coral’s budget preparations for 2013 and possibly make cuts as property values still try to recover. He’ll also face demands to improve the city’s overall financial situation, control the costs of the utilities expansion program and promote economic development.
Szerlag prefers a “50/50″ split in residential and commercial tax dollars. He knows that will be tough to reach here, but he wants to be able to attract business. “As long as the talent is readily available to fill jobs, especially the higher paying jobs, and the city has good infrastructure,” he said.
His supporters on the council said his experiences helping Troy recover from the loss of Kmart world headquarters, after a merger with Sears, and the city facing a $20 million loss of revenue are similar to Cape Coral’s experiences when the construction industry was nearly wiped out by the housing crisis.
“Clearly the economic situation of Cape Coral and further-reaching entities will be the greatest challenge our next city manager will face,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “Our propensity toward borrowing money is a failed policy, as it has been proven nationally and globally.”
“We need make sure budget is balanced and we have the money for infrastructure we need and that we’ve got money need to run the city,” Nesta said.
A plan also is needed to ensure pensions and health insurance plans are funded for the long term instead of year-to-year, Mayor John Sullivan said.
The council voted this year to restart the utilities expansion plan and is reviewing plans drawn about five years ago for the next phase.
“The people who made the decision on this are people who are not versed in utilities. Pushing something like this through now is not good government,” Sullivan said.
Present job: Troy, Mich city manager
New job: Cape Coral city manager
Expects to start: In May after he finishes budget preparations in Troy.
Personal touch: When dealing with unhappy citizens he tries to be fair, fast and consistent, and he tries to explain the rationale for the city’s actions.
Thoughts about Cape Coral: He likes the diversity of neighborhoods in Cape Coral, but sees need for repairing streets before they have to be rebuilt.
Education: Master’s degree in urban affairs from the University of Detroit urban affairs. He also has a bachelor’s degree in administration from Ferris State College.
Family: Wife, two children and one grandson.
Cape Coral city managers
Past Cape Coral city managers, years in position, and why they left.
Cliff Ryan, 1971-72
He went back into retirement.
Lee Evett, 1973-76
Resigned over disagreements with City Council and the rapid growth of city took its toll on him emotionally and physically. He said they were issuing 200 new home permits a day and had 78 council meetings in a year.
Robert Proctor, 1977-84
Reason for leaving was not available.
Ellis Shapiro, 1985-88
Resigned over dispute with council about salary increase.
Bill Noonan, 1988-91
He quit, blaming his departure on hostile and unstable political climate.
David Sallee, 1991-96
Resigned and accepted $50,000 severance package after council voted not to renew his contract after attempting to fire him three times.
Steve Daignault, 1996-2001
Resigned and accepted $81,000 severance package after several run-ins with council, especially then-mayor Arnold Kempe.
Terry Stewart, 2002-10
Resigned and accepted $82,500 severance package, anticipating difficult working relationship with incoming council.
Gary King, 2010-11
Fired after 16 months, taking $83,000 severance package.
Copyright 2012 The News-Press
All Rights Reserved