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O’Connor takes helm: ‘Electric is number 1 priority’

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 28, 2011)
Photo: New City Manager Jim O’Connor listens to Councilman Brian Heady’s budget views.

New Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor took the helm of the city Monday after watching a contentious week of budget hearings on the internet as much as possible while moving from Winchester, Virginia.

A seasoned administrator with decades of battles under his belt, O’Connor has his work cut out for him.

He has a dozen department heads left largely unchecked for years, looming negotiations to sell off both the electric and water-sewer utilities, City Council members who rarely cooperate and don’t much trust each other, a weak mayor and declining revenues forcing tough financial choices.

Only the police have ever had performance reviews, and about 70 city employees just voted to join the Teamsters. The cost of health benefits is going up 23 per cent this year and the city is $95 million in debt, including $6.4 million in banked sick and vacation time owed and $35 million in unfunded pension liability.

Hefty expectations bearing down on O’Connor from the City Council and the public include straightening out the messes left by previous councils, consultants, one former city attorney and three city managers in the past 10 years.

When asked to point out the strengths of the human resources he’ll have to work with, O’Connor said, “I think there’s a lot of skill and basic knowledge of the community and of the duties to be performed.”

In addition to the elimination of about 22 jobs from the city’s workforce of 450, the budget thrashed out last week between city staff and the City Council ends the one unpaid furlough day per month for rank-and-file employees and instead imposes five per cent pay cuts – with no corresponding time off – for staffers making $70,000 or more; this totals $140,000. Department heads also gave up auto allowances, trimming about $30,000.

“I think it’s fair that we as managers show the people we direct that we do our share. We did the same thing in Winchester,” O’Connor said. “The furloughs I looked at from an organizational standpoint and saw that they needed to go because, if you can take furloughs and have people gone a percentage of the time, you should be able to reduce your staffing by that same amount.”

The working budget increases Vero’s reliance on transfers from the electric, water and sewer utilities. That move seemed illogical, considering those transfers will go away if and when Vero gets out of the utility business.

“It was absolutely necessary because we’re cutting to the bone this year,” O’Connor said. “But we have got to have a game plan of how we’re going to get off the transfers long-term.”

The general fund budget of $20 million Includes $4.1 from property taxes and about $9.3 million in direct and administrative transfers from the utilities.

O’Connor said he wants to meet with city staff as soon as possible and tour city assets; he’s not yet been to the power plant or to the water and wastewater treatment sites.

“Electric is the number one priority,” O’Connor said. “The council set a policy to sell the utility and now it’s my job to bring a contract to them that gets that done.”

Councilman Brian Heady voted against hiring O’Connor, partially because he was suspicious of all the insider contacts O’Connor touted in his interviews – contacts Heady said he thought would prevent O’Connor from coming in with a truly open mind about the staff and the issues.

O’Connor said he was recruited by locals and was good friends with former city managers Rex Taylor and the late John Little.

Heady, despite the progress made on the budget last week with O’Connor’s input into the numbers, said he wants to see what the new city manager does once on the ground.

Interim City Manager Monte Falls admitted in public that he was counting the minutes until he could turn the yoke over to O’Connor. Loyal and personable, Falls has been friends with his fellow department heads for decades, and showed little eagerness over the past seven months to take staff to task.

That, among other things, will be O’Connor’s job.

“Monte’s position was to present a budget to the council for discussion purposes. His last day was the last day of budget hearings,” Heady said. “Jim O’Connor is the one who is going to have to live with the budget, so now we have to get serious.

“I intend to sit down, at the earliest possible date and tell him (O’Connor) where I see cuts that could be made in the budget. He can consider it or he can throw it in the garbage can, whatever he wants to do,” Heady said. “As the budget stands today, I will not vote yes.”