Neeley reflects on tenure as College Station’s city manager
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the The Eagle on Sunday.
Jan. 11 was my last day as College Station’s city manager, which means the emails have stopped and my once-packed calendar is now clear. After 40 years of public service, this feels pretty good. I’m not quite done yet — I have some other things I’d like to do before begrudgingly accepting the label of “retired.”
I’d like to use this blog to look back at my four very exciting, always challenging, and supremely rewarding years with the City of College Station. As I told my staff during a small reception on my last day, I’ve never worked with a group of professionals — from front-line workers to department heads — more focused on serving the public.
They are the ones who developed and executed so many important projects, reduced spending and streamlined operations, and maintained the service levels our citizens told us they expect. And good city council members had the vision and gave us what we needed to make those things happen.
When I arrived
I came to College Station in 2008 as an assistant city manager following many years of leading the City of Sugar Land. I’m drawn to cities that are either experiencing significant growth or are square in its path. Those are the cities where fun things can occur and development opportunities are great, and I saw College Station fitting that description.
I had planned to stay long enough to accompany then-city manager Glenn Brown out the door and into retirement. It turned out Glenn was ready to be a full-time grandfather earlier than I predicted, so the College Station City Council asked me to replace him in 2011. I gladly accepted.
Relations with Bryan
One of the first things I noticed after coming to College Station was the strained relations with our city counterparts in Bryan. Not so much in the sense of public safety, for example, but between some elected officials and council-appointed personnel. I am so proud to have been part of a genuine shift in those relationship dynamics. Councils are working together and city staffs are forging historic partnerships, such as sharing ad valorem revenues in a BioCorridor along the cities’ border.
This doesn’t benefit one city over another; it benefits the entire community in terms of new companies, quality jobs and more families to call this place home. My thanks to Bryan City Manager Kean Register for being a trusted friend and colleague, whether our subject matter was smooth or a little bumpy.
Pulling rabbits from the hat
For better or worse, my time as city manager occurred at a time when College Station’s organizational structure was not positioned to withstand a significant economic downturn. It required a hard look at how we were doing business, where efficiencies could be achieved and where our resources should be focused. I asked departments to identify areas where cuts could be made without major sacrifices in service levels. Their recommendations, combined with city council direction and some of my own initiatives, resulted in some radical changes — many of them painful.
My goals for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 were tougher than they might sound: Create a balanced budget; lower the tax rate; build, staff and equip a new fire station; hire more police officers; wean our reliance on the Electric Fund subsidizing the General Fund; and putting off a planned increase in electric rates. Oh, and find a way for our employees to receive merit-based pay increases for the first time in awhile.
Credit goes to our Finance Department, which repeatedly found ways to pull new rabbits out of their hat to achieve all of the aforementioned budgetary goals, and plenty more.
I’ve already mentioned how College Station’s relationship with Bryan has improved in many ways over the past few years, but I’m also proud of the strides we made with Northgate merchants and many others in our business and development communities. That didn’t happen by accident: City staff worked extremely hard to listen to complaints, facilitate meetings and conduct surveys in order to identify and solve problems. Neither side may always get everything they want, but I truly believe our merchants and builders felt like they were being dealt with fairly.
To fully address the underlying issues with builders, developers, merchants, and our many neighborhood associations, the city council must ensure its ordinances are aligned with community objectives and adopted plans and policies. I had a businessman tell me once that “common sense, flexibility and good judgment normally will prevail.” Regulations are established for a purpose and must be able to accomplish their intended objective; if not, then they should be replaced with new regulations, revised or removed — that’s using common sense.
On the horizon
College Station’s most exciting days may lie ahead. There’s always energy in a city of 50,000 college students, but I think the rest of Texas and much of the nation is noticing us for all the right reasons. Early success in athletics has occurred in the Southeastern Conference when few expected it, and that’s generated a buzz about our city. Research labs and biomedical industries are looking at our BioCorridor as their next home.
The College Station Medical District is showing potential to be an area of distinction like nothing our city has ever seen before. And the area along University Drive and South College Avenue — from Texas Avenue to Wellborn Road — is transforming into an urban environment that, I believe, will become the community’s preferred destination for dining, shopping and entertainment.
Growth can be exciting, but it will require an enormous amount of planning to create the infrastructure to accommodate it. That planning is already occurring. Water and wastewater capacity will need to be increased, our streets and traffic control devices will have to handle an increase in volume, and even the way we protect lives and property will need to change.
Thanks to a highly professional city staff and a dedicated city council, College Station is in excellent hands. I’d like to think that I left the city a little better than I found it, but others will have to make that determination. I do want to thank all those who made my wife, Darlene, and I feel so welcomed from our very first day here. College Station-Bryan is a very special place to us and always will be.
Former City Manager | City of College Station