Tomás “Tommy” Gonzalez has been on the job as El Paso’s city manager for less than three weeks and has already had to deal with controversy, a break in the ranks at City Hall and a lot of questions about his intentions.
The former Army lieutenant colonel is quick to say he doesn’t mind the questions, but that he just got his boots on the ground and needs a little time to assess the situation and the people around him.
It is clear there will be some reorganizing and that he will be doing things differently than his predecessor, Joyce Wilson. It’s also clear that he is not a go-slow type of leader.
However, he openly acknowledges that he has moved too fast in the past and has learned some good lessons the hard way.
Gonzalez, a youthful looking 47, has served as the city manager of Irving and Harlingen and as a deputy city manager in Dallas and Lubbock. He retired from the Army reserves in 2012 after 22 years of service.
The Lubbock native is fluent in Spanish but doesn’t plan to swap his given name, Tomás, for “Tommy” now that he’s on the border.
He’s butted heads with one city representative already, but has a strong admirer in Eastside city Rep. Michiel Noe, a physician who likes what he’s seen in Gonzalez and has high hopes that he’ll be good for the city’s fastest growing area.
“This guy is my dream city manager,” said Noe, who had problems in June with the city’s hiring process. “You see him with his wife and kids, and you just see moral character there.”
Since taking over, Gonzalez has gotten the resignation of a deputy city manager, Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, the city’s CFO and a finalist for the job he won.
He also watched City Council heat up over the status of another deputy city manager and finalist, Jane Shang, who was placed on six months leave with pay followed by four months of paid vacation by Wilson in one of her last acts.
As for Shang, who recently made it to the final four in the running for city manager of Des Moines, Iowa, Gonzalez has indicated he will not interfere with the arrangement Wilson put in place for reasons that have not been made public.
Gonzalez had the opportunity to add a few touches to a preliminary budget that was going to need a 5-cent tax increase this fall to balance. That has since been whittled down to 2 cents with budget meetings still to come.
“You’re going to have the budget, you’re going to have people leave, you’re going to have all these things happen that can detract from the main focal point,” Gonzalez said. “My focal point is having a plan and executing it.”
Contract negotiations with the police union are now under way and said to be going surprisingly well, and Gonzalez said he has yet to hear from Police Chief Greg Allen about needing more officers.
Gonzalez equated El Paso, the nation’s safest big city, to a Super Bowl winner and suggested he would question the need for more players – or more police officers in this case.
“To me, I just look at the results; data drives my decisions,” he said. “Trust God. Everybody else has to bring data.”
Gonzalez dropped by El Paso Inc. last week to introduce himself and was a little surprised to be met by the staff and peppered with prepared questions, which he answered until there were no more.
Q: What’s El Paso’s biggest challenge?
I think we need to look at what we want to look like in 20 years. That’s the biggest challenge, to look 20 years ahead and not be myopic and say ‘We want to be known for X.’ That’s the biggest challenge, to have a vision to work toward as a community.
Q: What’s the city’s biggest asset?
The momentum that the city has is an asset and I think that could be leveraged to move forward on a lot of initiatives quickly throughout the city. You had a vote that said you want to improve the community. That says a lot, and I think we need to move quickly on those projects.
Q: How is the budget looking?
The main adjustment, the big ticket item is the 2.1 cents (increase in the tax rate). One cent is for tax incentives. The other penny is going for quality of life projects.
Q: So you’re looking at a potential tax increase?
Yes, by 2 cents to 69.9 cents (per $100 valuation). The deputy city managers and department heads put the budget together. I asked them to balance it and show me what it looked like. It looked like almost 5 cents of tax increase. Since I’ve gotten here in the last two weeks and even before that, we’ve reduced that down to 2 cents.
I’ve been heavily involved with that part of it and have given the department heads opportunities to say what parts of the budget they want to put back in that are most critical where service may be impacted. That’s what we’ve been doing. The 2 cents hasn’t changed.
Q: It’s been a bumpy few weeks for you. You’re looking at a tax increase, the city’s CFO and deputy city manager, Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, is leaving, another deputy city manager, Jane Shang, is on paid leave till April. What are you focusing on?
You’re going to have the budget, you’re going to have people leave, you’re going to have all these things happen that can detract from the main focal point. My focal point is having a plan and executing it.
After two weeks, I think we’ve done a lot but it’s hard to articulate all the things we’ve done.
I’d rather do it and then talk about what we’ve done, as opposed to saying what all we’re going to do. Here, I think everybody wants to know what I’m going to do.
Well, I’ve been here two weeks. We just need to execute, and we need time to do that and to make sure that the staff is executing based on the plan and that we’re executing efficiently.
Right now, I think we’re reacting to some things. I’m telling you what the department heads have told me. I’ve got a good little process set up and I don’t mind talking – but after we’ve got some results, after we’ve put teams in place and assigned them to the key focus areas important to this community.
Q: You have spoken about wanting to look into the efficiency of city processes. Is there someplace you’d like to start?
Right now, we’re a very reactive organization. I think we need to become more proactive. We’ve already talked about setting up cross-functional teams. We have several departments working with each other. Instead of having one department going out and doing something and having three different things left out because three other departments aren’t there. That’s one example.
Economic development is another area where we want to make sure that the mayor and council have one point of contact, which in this case would be myself, to then direct staff to give the proper resources where necessary and coordinate with the Borderplex Alliance. Those are just some examples.
Q: Will you be reorganizing things? Former city manager Joyce Wilson had her deputy city managers with responsibilities over multiple departments or operations. Are you looking to do something else in terms of the organization of city government?
I’m still looking at that, what kind of talent and ability we have in-house to do some of that and who would fit better in some of those areas. I’m looking at giving more people more responsibility, maybe spreading the wealth a little more and maybe collapsing some positions with each other so we can save some money and overhead.
We’re going to do a national search for a chief financial officer. We’re not going to leave that position vacant.
I want time to find the right people. I could do it today, all these things you’re asking about: restructuring and saving money. But I want to be sure that I know who’s got the abilities to fill those positions. If I put people in place and have a great system, what if they’re the wrong people?
You can have the smartest person, but it might be someone who cannot lead a team and people will not follow. Or you can have a smart person that’s got charisma that can lead these folks and inspire them, that’s like a tribal leader. We’ve got to find these tribal leaders within the organization. They’re going to lead different teams to get them to get these results.
Q: Would you call the city top heavy in terms of management?
I want to look at it some more. In some places, I’ve acted very quickly, and as I’ve gotten older, I want to take a little bit more time to look at things. I do think we can get more efficient, I can tell you that. I just have to get my head around what the community wants and what the council wants with regard to service levels.
Now, when you reduce the budget, people feel like their services are cut or impacted, and it’s really not the case.
Q: Can you give an example?
In Irving, we had three swimming pools that were close together. They had 3,000 users apiece that were using them each year. We closed two and put spray parks in them and then did an aquatics facility at the third. One went from 3,000 visitors to 15,000, another from 3,000 to closer to 16,000, and the third site went from 3,000 to 120,000. Now we’re serving 150,000 people, some of whom are repeat customers.
Q: I’m sure you’ve met the police chief, Greg Allen. He has been vocal at times about being short-handed and needing more officers to improve response times.
He hasn’t brought it up, but I would say to any department head that I will look at your results. Say you win the Super Bowl, but you say you don’t have enough people to win the Super Bowl.
Q: That’s long been the argument here. If the crime rate is dropping, why do we need more police officers?
To me, I just look at the results. Data drives my decisions. Trust God. Everybody else has to bring data.
Q: Ten years ago or so, the city was growing at the fringes. A new City Council came in and said we’re going to slow that down a lot – for water reasons and because of the costs for streets, fire stations and all of that. They wanted to curb urban sprawl and focus on a more concentrated kind of development – smart growth – closer in. But there are developers who don’t like that. They like being out there on the edges. What do you think is wise in terms of where the city should be in 20 years?
Urban sprawl has been an issue in a lot of communities because developers will build what people want. Some people want that and some people want the downtown. But what’s going to create the downtown is also not to forget the focus on jobs and creating the jobs that will draw people downtown and create the attractions downtown to have a true downtown development area.
Q: In terms of who pays property taxes in El Paso, it’s about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial and it may be closer to 70-30. I suspect it’s the other way around in Irving. How do you think we could get back to, say, 50-50?
In Irving, they have 72 percent commercial and 28 percent residential. I think there’s pretty strong (development) incentives in place here. I think we have to go after the right target markets. We have to have the right type of incentives but not just for business. We have to incentivize the whole family. What can we have that will draw them here?
That’s why you have to balance everything and why the capital projects are so important. That’s why job growth is so important. That’s the reason for looking at the right type of attraction that would draw people from the region to El Paso is so important. When you start putting all those things together and have good housing stock, then you have the quality of life that you can draw big companies with. You’ve always got to think of the wife and the kids and what they’re going to have.
Q: When you talk about looking 20 years out, do you like the idea of the city coming up with the big vision, some kind of a congress of the community getting together and trying to decide what El Paso wants to be in 20 years? El Paso’s always had a hard time looking down the road.
I don’t think we need to make something difficult that isn’t. City Council has already put a strategic plan together. When you look at strategic plans across America, they’re all kind of the same in terms of goals, what they look at, how to develop certain parts of town.
I think it’s important to get people connected on that and to operationalize the strategic plan. By that I mean making sure there’s a good connection with that and the city departments and making sure that’s repeated and to make sure that the goals they said they wanted are getting done, that you’re all focused on a common vision, all headed in the same direction.
Quite frankly, that’s how I’ve been able to do that in other cities, and it’s been successful.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.