AFI: At what point during the crisis did you start looking at your budget to see where you needed to make adjustments?
Mike Bennett: I think like many cities, we are always focused on potential unknowns and how we budget contingencies, fund balances and reserves. But our thoughts turned to looking at the budget very soon into the process as it became clear that this may last awhile and impact future revenues (mainly sales tax revenues). In Fruita, March 6th was when we more formally began responding and we began looking at the budget within a week.
AFI: When you first addressed some of these cuts, generally, how did the staff react?
Mike Bennett: I think it depends on the situation but there have been moments of confusion, concern and worry. The most concern arose when a day or two went by without clarity. When we communicated clearly about what we were doing or thinking, even if we didn't have all the answers, the minds of staff were eased.
But overall, I am so proud of how the staff have reacted. They were creative with things like making a sharing shelves program outside our Community Center where community members can donate necessary items, and in coordinating with food banks and senior programs to help deliver food. They've been adaptive by immediately establishing ways to get jobs done while social distancing, creating temporary workstations and adjusting to remote working. I can keep going but they've been really resilient.
AFI: How often are you reaching out to your staff now? Do you feel like you're talking to them more than you have in the past, whether about the crisis or normal operations?
Mike Bennett: Yes, definitely. One thing we started doing at the beginning was conducting daily check-ins with our leadership team. All the department directors jump on a Zoom call every day - some meetings last an hour and some last 10 minutes. But we decided even if we didn't have an agenda, this time was important to see each other, check-in and see if anyone had new questions or concerns.
Recently I also began joining some department/staff meetings that are being done on virtual calls just to see faces of coworkers that I don't see very often. That's been a really good thing for me and for them so I can answer questions. A lot of it has been focused on creating clarity and trying to overcommunicate.
AFI: The former city manager of Santa Monica said recently that their legacy services were invented to respond to the challenge of industrializing America from a century ago. Through all this, have you thought about changes within your organization that need to modernize immediately?
Mike Bennett: For sure, there are some things we identified before the pandemic and had slated to start doing. However, I believe that communication methods will be the never-ending innovation. There are always easier and new ways to communicate with the public. No matter how much effort we put into it, we still do not reach the majority of our residents because everyone prefers different ways to receive and seek information.
I’ve also felt for a long time that we need to find better ways for residents to participate in public hearings. The traditional process requires people to come in, stand in front of a podium, state their name and address and publicly speak within a certain amount of time, with an audience behind them. In some ways, this is the least effective way to get public feedback because of the process they have to go through.
AFI: Obviously some rebuilding needs to happen this year, but what have you been thinking about when looking to next year? What can we focus on to help build our communities?
Mike Bennett: I'm a fanatic believer in staying focused on the why and our long-term goals and avoiding distractions. We’re finding numerous was to help our small businesses and stimulate the economy, but as I look into the next year, we are going to keep moving forward on our goals.
We updated our Comprehensive Plan in February, with unprecedented public participation leading up to that adoption. That process clarified our community vision, values and goals. Even though this has been a huge curve ball, those don't change. The vision, values and goals are still 100% relevant and we’re still able to move forward with some of the items identified in that plan.
AFI: If you could look at what you’ve learned during this crisis, what’s something you would write a whole chapter of a book about?
Mike Bennett: So many different things! One thing it reinforced was the need to focus on the things that matter most because when the storm hits, it's too late start. You really have to stick to the basics. You have to go back to those fundamental best practices, those tried and true principles that you can always rely on, no matter what the situation is, and then start working through it.
There are so many principles we find along the way that we read about, experiment with and come to rely on. This was a curve ball we couldn’t foresee, but those fundamental principles will get you through.
AFI: Is there anything you'd like to say to people out there that might be facing similar challenges right now?
Mike Bennett: The city manager profession and local government industry is such a tight knit network that it's always refreshing to hear from somebody who’s in a similar position. I’m glad we have state associations and the international association to reach out and touch base. We're all in the same boat and facing a lot of the same issues.