Dionne Mack came to El Paso in 2011 to run the city’s public libraries after having spent 14 years with Brooklyn Public Library in New York City and rising to become its executive director.
The Brooklyn borough had a $101 million library budget and 60 libraries when she left, and Mack was paid a $255,000 salary plus additional income that put her total compensation in the neighborhood of $300,000.
She was a controversial leader, and the days leading to her voluntary departure were full of New York Daily News headlines about her.
“If you’re not a New Yorker and you’re looking at it from the outside, you can’t possibly understand the politics of it,” she said of the job and the place.
The El Paso library system has 11 libraries with an $8 million budget. Nudged on by City Manager Tommy Gonzales, Mack has risen through the ranks as she did in Brooklyn.
At 44, she’s now one of Gonzalez’s three deputy city managers with a long portfolio of departments and responsibilities that includes libraries, the police and fire departments, human resources, purchasing, health benefits, municipal courts and the 911 system.
“We have department heads who are actually responsible for the day-to-day responsibilities,” she said. “I provide oversight for those departments and support.”
The new job came with a $186,049 annual salary, according to the city Human Resources Department.
Mack’s accomplishments include revamping the city health benefits system for more than 6,000 employees, plus 6,500 children, spouses and partners. The changes are aimed at saving money for taxpayers and workers alike.
She also helped lead city officials, taxi companies and Uber through months of negotiations that ended with a new ordinance that freed cab companies from heavy city regulation. They also let new transportation services like Uber and Lyft operate legally on city streets.
Mack sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about the life and snow she happily left in New York City, why she picked El Paso and what her next career move might be.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: New York is a city with 8.5 million people and a world apart from El Paso. It’s kind of small town to ask, but how would you describe the differences between living here and there?
Here, I can’t go to SoHo or to Chinatown for Chinese food. But thinking about the things that are really important, for me it’s the daily commute, ensuring that my son is in a school that is very supportive, being able to come to a job every day that I absolutely love and that’s absolutely challenging every day.
When I moved into a directorship in Brooklyn, I was far removed from the result. It was all about the politics and trying to make politicians happy and board members happy. But, there was no balance for me in terms of the things I really, really care about.
Q: When you came from Brooklyn, you were running a $101 million public library system and up to your neck in controversy. What was that all about?
If you’re not a New Yorker and you’re looking at it from the outside, you can’t possibly understand the politics of it. I came up in the Brooklyn Public Library and had nine positions there in 14 years. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to grow my career and to be exposed to a lot in terms of politics, fundraising and being a lobbyist.
One of the things that was most challenging was I had a 38-member library board that was very political. And, I had a 14-member governing board appointed by either borough presidents or the mayor. Then we had a foundation board and chose to combine those two. Then, people who were not fundraisers were not too happy about people who had money trying to tell them what to do.
Dealing with that was the part of the job I appreciated least.
Q: Why El Paso?
Whenever you look at library directorships, you’re not going to stay in your city. There are 9,000 public libraries in the United States and maybe 120 that are of the size that would have been attractive to me. At the time, Seattle was open and El Paso was open.
My son at the time was 9, and I wanted to make sure he could be in an environment where he would get the kind of support he needed for his education and the type of environment and neighborhood we wanted him to grow up in for the next few years.
I wanted to be sure that when I made that move I was not going to make another move while he was young. He’s now almost 16, and I want him to graduate here. Another thing, there’s no snow. I’ve had 30 years of shoveling. I came to interview in November or December, and I didn’t have to wear that coat. I thought, “I could live here.”
There, I had a four-hour commute per day for 14 years. Here, it might be 20 minutes each way if I hit a little bit of traffic. It’s like giving me 20 hours of my life back each week.
Q: What kind of opportunities did you see here?
When I came out for the interview, El Paso had just gotten an $8 million broadband technology opportunity grant. That’s what I came here for. I saw it as a game-changer in terms of how this organization was going to have a role in workforce development with its communities.
When I came, my focus was getting that grant fully executed in three years. Most of my time in New York was about facilities. We had 60 locations, and 13 of those were 100-year-old Carnegie buildings that were in dismal shape. Sixty percent of the others were 50 or 60 years old with $150 million in deferred maintenance and no way to focus our attention on getting them repaired.
Here, I looked at the age of the library buildings that people were calling 20 years old and knew I was going to be able to focus on programs because the buildings are not falling apart.
Q: Has the grant turned out to be as transformational as you hoped?
It has. It helped the staff to see the potential of the organization. What we heard through the feedback surveys was for exactly what we’re implementing now – GEDs, more classes and having them throughout the city. We were able to do that and continue to expand that program in terms of the community and region. We see such great turnout for those programs and being able to go to people’s graduations or go to citizenship ceremonies was awesome.
Q: You established 93 computer centers with 1,400 new computers and free internet access. Is that still going strong?
Q: So libraries are not obsolete.
Q: You became responsible for making changes in the city’s self-funded health insurance program for employees and retirees to reduce costs – a big job. What changes did you make?
We took a step back and looked at the entire plan. We design it to be beneficial to staff, to help us control costs by changing our behavior and to try to ensure our staff members were more aware of how they could make better choices in their health plans.
We’re self-insured, and in the last five years before we went into that process, we saw that taxpayers were paying 44 percent more in terms of the base plan for city staff. Staff premiums had gone up by 34 percent. So, we really wanted to change our double-digit escalating costs and be more proactive about wellness so we can really keep more money in our pocket when it comes to health care.
Q: What drove costs up so much?
Countrywide, we’ve been seeing double-digit increases in the costs for health care. For our population in particular, we have more than the average number of claims for chronic illnesses. So, when we’re not taking care of ourselves and taking advantage of the preventive care pieces, we pay in the long run.
Q: Why would the costs for city employees be higher than the general population of insured people in terms of chronic diseases?
I don’t know that our city employees were higher in terms of chronic illnesses. It was higher than the national average – a 7 percent increase in health-care costs. We were starting to see double-digit increases and those increases are directly related to our claims.
Q: What kind of changes did you make?
We changed it so that everybody who had a plan that was employee-only would pay the same or less if they chose to go with our new consumer-driven health plan or stay with a basic plan. Then everybody with children was going to be paying less.
Q: What is a consumer-driven health plan?
You pay the first dollars out of your pocket for your plan, up to like $3,000. Anything above that, you’re getting coverage for, say, hospitalization. So for anyone who’s wanting a catastrophic plan rather than day-to-day illnesses outside of preventive care, it’s a very, very attractive plan for them.
The benefit for us is it reduces claims. We see about a 17 percent reduction. A lot of staff moved to that plan, and one of the things we gave them last year was a health savings account card with either $500 or $1,000 on it to allow them to have that available to them the first day of their plan.
One thing that people weren’t aware of is that all the HSA plans also cover preventative health care. We have free clinics. Any staff person can walk into any of our clinics at no charge.
Q: You mean City Health Department clinics?
Yes. It makes sense to use those facilities that the city is already investing in. If I have a headache, I can go to the clinic downstairs. There’s no waiting because it’s right here in the building. That prevents you from having any out-of-pocket expenses, and immunizations are covered.
Most of us are taking our kids for check-ups and to get their sports physical, and you go for your physical. None of those are out-of-pocket for the employee.
Q: It sounds like employees come out ahead.
For the majority of people, the change from the plan they were on to the HSA put more than $1,300 in their pocket. So, you take what you were paying in premiums and the amount we gave you, and you’re actually ahead.
Q: About the time you got here in 2011, the city made the very controversial move of opening health benefits up to city employees’ domestic partners. It later became “employee plus one,” but early on there weren’t many of the unmarried partners enrolled. How many are there now?
Our count for medical adult domestic partner enrollees is 34 out of almost 12,500 enrollees in the plan. Keep in mind that domestic partner includes same-sex and male/female couples.
Q: What is your education and what did you expect to do?
I have a master’s degree in African studies and another one in library science. I thought I was going to get my Ph.D. at Temple University. Then I went to Brooklyn Public Library and thought I was going to stay for two years because I needed two years to get into academia. I wanted to do African American Studies – Library. I wanted to be a librarian in an African-American studies center or at a university.
But that didn’t last very long. It became, “You gotta get a job because you’ve got debt.”
Q: As far as city government, it would seem the world is wide open to you now. You’re probably looking at a city manager position down the road if you want it.
That was the conversation I had with (City Manager) Tommy Gonzalez about a year ago because I’d had a lot of positions. I had been in libraries for a long time and from the time he came in, he’s been pushing, saying I could do more.
Q: Seems like he gave you a lot more to do.
He did, but he waited a year until I was ready. I’ve been thinking about the city manager’s role, and I think that would be the next step for me. I’m looking at the people who have left this organization and been successful.
Sean McGlynn and I were department heads together. He’s now the city manager in Santa Rosa, California, and doing a great job. I worked with Stuart Ed, who’s now in Las Cruces as city manager. I was here with Jane Shang, and she’s now doing very well in Florida, another city manager. El Paso’s doing a good job of building leadership.
Q: What would you say about being a professional black woman in El Paso, Texas?
I have found El Paso to be warm and welcoming and willing to judge based on the result rather than a preconceived notion of what they thought somebody could bring. That’s was one of the things that was wonderful when I came into my position here.