Over the nearly five years Tommy Gonzalez has been El Paso city manager, he has made it clear he intends to leave his mark on City Hall.
Gonzalez manages a nearly $1 billion operation that is one of the area’s largest employers. With a budget of $989 million, the city employs about 6,800 people.
Before coming to El Paso with his wife and two kids, Gonzalez served as the city manager of Irving and Harlingen, Texas. The Lubbock-native retired from the Army Reserve in 2012 after 22 years of service.
When he was hired in El Paso in May 2014, Gonzalez brought with him some of the strategies he became known for as city manager of Irving and Harlingen, especially Lean Six Sigma. A management theory for increasing efficiency and customer service, Lean Six Sigma marks advancement with belt colors like martial arts. Gonzalez is a black belt.
The former lieutenant colonel’s management style, at times direct and blunt, and his shakeup of city departments has brought him into conflict with some city representatives and staff over the years. And he has collected his share of bruises, including criticism over the size of his $330,750 salary, an ethics review in 2016 and complaints about government transparency.
But he has also won praise from others who point to the awards the city has been racking up and the results, including $50 million in cost-savings, reductions in red tape and improvements in the quality of service.
Most recently, Gonzalez was recognized for his leadership by the Baldrige Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation established by Congress in the 1980s to promote organizational performance excellence. He was one of 13 government, business and nonprofit leaders presented with the 2019 Leadership Excellence Award.
And earlier this month, the city announced it had earned the Texas Award for Performance Excellence from the Quality Texas Foundation. The city is also an All-America City finalist. It won the award in 2018.
Gonzalez was born and raised in Lubbock, where his dad was a migrant worker and held three jobs to support the family. In the Army, Gonzalez fought in Bosnia during the peacekeeping mission, and in Iraq during the Gulf War.
He is chair of the Quality Texas Foundation Board of Directors, as well as a member of the state Risk Management Board and Governing Texas Advisory Board.
Gonzalez sat down with El Paso Inc. in his office at City Hall and talked about how the migrant crisis has impacted the city, the controversial Downtown bond projects, and what’s next for him and his family.
Q: What is El Paso’s biggest challenge?
A lot of the state and federal unfunded mandates are some of our biggest challenges right now – not only with how the city provides services and the budget, but the impact federal decisions have on our community.
Q: When you say unfunded mandates, what are you referring to?
Things like the state saying its not going to maintain the state rights-of-way anymore, which are streets within our city limits.
That has a $2 million impact on our city budget. We have to then be creative to address that without busting the budget.
Q: How is the border crisis and federal immigration policy impacting the city, which manages three of the region’s international ports of entry?
El Paso is a very caring community. Our staff has really stepped up in partnering with the county and others to address the issues we are facing with the influx of people coming through our borders to live in America.
The biggest challenge is we need the federal government to put more dollars toward the international bridges. We need them to put more money toward staffing so we can accommodate the people coming across and the trade that crosses our bridges.
Economically, it doesn’t just impact our region but it also impacts the entire state of Texas and the United States in general.
Q: What are the direct costs to the city?
Overtime as it relates to public safety, use of some Sun Metro busses, some of the coordination in the emergency management office. We are seeing some of those kinds of costs.
Those are just the expenditure impacts. When you look at revenue, we have on a regular day 35,000 vehicles that cross. You have 20,000 pedestrians. Obviously, those numbers have been impacted.
Q: And many of those people from Mexico spend money here in El Paso to eat and shop.
When you look at the outlet mall, 9 million people go through there. Around 45 percent are from Mexico. That’s a big number. That’s the No. 1 producing property for that company in North America.
When we go after companies to recruit here, they often ask what the impact of the Mexican shopper is and we use that example.
Q: How did you have to restructure the organization to be competitive for the Baldridge Award?
There’s the leadership component, but you have to put systems in place for getting things done that people can relate to and people can follow through on. You do that through a strategic plan. That’s the first order of business. We need a mission, vision and values. That’s the other part.
Case in point: NASA’s mission was to get a man on the moon. Everyone from astronauts to the people cleaning the offices knew that was the mission.
Here our mission is to deliver exceptional services to the community. We want to keep it simple and be able to demonstrate that we are making that happen, either through recognitions nationally or through measurable results.
It doesn’t mean we’re perfect – obviously we have a lot of things we need to get better at – but it does provide a structure for getting better.
We need to focus on our workforce, which we have through surveys.
Q: What do you mean by focusing on the workforce?
When I first started working here, the feedback I received from staff was about our insurance and not having raises in five or six years. So we did a one-time, lump-sum payment after we right-sized the budget.
And then we attacked the health care issue by putting a voluntary wellness program in place, Shape it Up. It gave employees the opportunity to earn up to $150 per month.
It helped the organization by reducing health care costs, although we have work to do there in getting more people involved in the program.
Q: How do employees earn the financial rewards?
You have to do a physical fitness test or you can do a biometric test.
The other way we listen to our staff is we incorporated the methodology of Lean Six Sigma.
Early on when I began presenting the idea to council they were very critical. It felt like it was just another methodology – the flavor of the month.
But we were able to show how the staff came up with new solutions through the work they did with the customer.
Q: Are you seeing real improvement or are employees simply checking the box?
We are seeing results like almost $7 million in savings over the past three or four years. We have almost 90,000 hours of staff time that have been saved. And, again, the staff did that.
We did a project on the international bridges, a 20-month process with the maquilas, transportation officials and other stakeholders, and were able to design a program where we were actually able to get $32 million from the state to improve the ports of entry. The state delegation did a remarkable job of obtaining that money for us.
That project is something that has never happened in the history of El Paso.
Another example is something that people might not think of and that’s our data usage, whether it is cell phones or tablets.
We also had a bunch of desktop phones throughout the city that weren’t in use because they were not in places where we had people. People might scratch their heads and wonder why we need a Lean Six Sigma project to figure that out. But you do. You need some type of methodology to communicate with staff to get the best results.
All of that saved us $1.5 million.
Another example: It took a couple of days to do work orders out at the El Paso International Airport. Now it takes an hour and a half. Coincidentally, because of all of the great work they are doing out there, the airport was recognized by Airports Council International as the 2018 Best Airport in North America.
Over the past few years, 19 direct flights have been added. They’ve reshaped the incentive program to attract new airlines and flights and improved customer service.
We don’t go through this process just to check the box.
Q: What is the status of the Great Wolf Lodge deal? They have 18 months from last November to give their final decision, right?
That’s correct. It’s still in that process. We have been working on state legislation related to state tax rebates. We still want to maximize and leverage state dollars.
Q: What vibe are you getting from Great Wolf? Is the deal still moving forward?
It’s still going in the right direction. In terms of the analysis and the work at the state level, that is continuing right now.
Q: Is the city giving away too much with its offer of tax incentives, the land swap and the $1,000-a-year lease?
It is in line with a lot of the incentives they have received in other communities. We have to remain competitive and put our best foot forward when we attempt to bring something like a Great Wolf Lodge to our community.
Q: What big economic development initiatives are on the horizon?
(Laughs) That’s a very good question. We’ve been able to bring TopGolf and iFly. The third thing we’ve talked about is Great Wolf Lodge, and that is in the works now.
We’ve also talked about a Main Event. We’ve looked at a Pinstack and other retail opportunities.
But what we are really looking at is how we can fully develop the existing nodes in El Paso right now, whether it is the Medical Center of the Americas and our partnership with Texas Tech or the former Cohen Stadium site.
That project is going to get exciting very quickly once the city waterpark there is underway and developers can see the potential. We have been in talks with several different groups.
Q: Has the city started working with MountainStar Sports Group on a soccer stadium for El Paso Locomotive FC?
We have not had sit-down, long discussions. They’ve had no qualms about saying they are planning a stadium, but we have not had a sit-down with them recently to have any sort of discussions or dialogue about that.
Q: You’ve been clear from your first day on the job that the city needed to get moving on the big, signature bond projects in Downtown. Why has it been so challenging to get them off the ground?
The fact of the matter is 100 projects are completed now, there are 18 underway and there’s another 15 or so under design.
The children’s museum, we have a partnership with the private sector. The way we structured that deal is they are going to pay for two-thirds of the operational cost. The maximum to the city would be $2.7 million-$3 million. Say you ramp up to that amount. Over 10 years, we’ve saved $20 million. We structured a very smart deal for our community and taxpayers.
For the Mexican American Cultural Center, we’ve partnered with El Paso Community College and are going to partner with other entities. EPCC’s restaurant on the rooftop will be a wonderful way to showcase the students and the culinary arts program.
We also have a partnership with the men of Company E memorial that involves the addition of an art piece. I’m very proud of the fact that we are going to highlight the Mexican Americans who served in World War II.
Q: What about the multipurpose center – the arena?
It is being litigated in the courts. It’s unfortunate.
Q: When do think that might be resolved, whatever the outcome?
I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. The legal process is what it is. I’m thinking it will be at least another year.
Q: Why have the price tags on some of the bond projects grown?
I don’t think there was a good scoping of what certain things would cost. A good case in point is the 50-meter pool on the Westside. $8 million was set aside, and the actual cost was $15.5 million.
It’s a matter of following through with the commitments that were made to voters.
Other projects not scoped out right are the Mexican American Cultural Center and the children’s museum. The children’s museum in Juárez was $32 million. And the funding for El Paso’s was $19.5 million.
Q: But did the scope of some of the projects grow? I don’t remember city water parks in the original quality of life bond.
That’s a very good question. You have to look at the existing aquatics facilities the city has and the numbers of people attending those facilities and what is happening across America and Texas. In the mid 2000s, we started doing that in another city I worked in, and you had the Dallases and Fort Worths of the world closing all of their pools.
In Irving, we closed three pools that had about 9,000 attendees for the summer. Then we built one regional water facility that had something for everyone. Attendance surged to more than 100,000.
I wanted to bring approaches that may not have been considered before and were in line with what true quality of life is. If you rebuilt a house from the 1960s, would you build it the same way as the 1960s house? Probably not.
Q: What do you and your wife want to do next?
Well, that’s a personal question. We are not finished here.
Part of this Lean Six Sigma process is identifying opportunities for improvement. I want to get our organization to another level, and I think our staff has proven to be very resilient and done tremendous work.