Powers steps down as city administrator on November 18. Two weeks later, he’ll step into his next job as city manager of Salem, Oregon.
Is he leaving for a better job, more money, a step up in his career?
“Yes to all three,” he says with a fleeting smile.
The money is straightforward: he made $159,000 a year here, while Salem will pay $210,000. So is the step up: Salem, Oregon’s capital, has about 160,000 people to Ann Arbor’s 117,000. And the job “is a city manager position, not a city administrator,” Powers says. “The authority and responsibilities are much stronger and clearer.”
Not that he’s complaining about his four-year tenure in Ann Arbor. Asked about his time here, Powers pauses, then paraphrases Lou Gehrig’s line from Pride of the Yankees: “I’m the luckiest man in the world.
“I came to Ann Arbor when a lot of the difficult work had been done. The city was emerging from horrific economic times that had a major impact on the organization, and I was part of a team that helped us come out with a manageable, sustainable path.”
His predecessor, Roger Fraser, had reduced the city’s payroll from 1,000 employees to 700. By the time Powers arrived in 2011, he recalls, “the biggest challenge was the shrinking workforce and the need to provide quality services with fewer people–and to motivate management to not accept mediocrity.”
The city faced “challenges of opportunity, specifically growth: the increasing attraction of Ann Arbor as a place to do business, particularly for tech companies, and the desirability of our residential areas plus the services challenges that flow from [all that]: the increased traffic and services expectations.”
As the city emerges from the Great Recession, it’s experiencing what Powers calls “moderate” growth in property tax revenues. The challenge for an administrator is that costs are rising faster than revenue, by about one percent a year. “We get that balanced every year, so it’s a manageable issue,” Powers says. “But it is an issue.”
It’s an issue that is not going away. “Our revenue projections [and] the way local government is funded in Michigan do not suggest a significant growth in resources,” he says. “It’s going to be an ongoing challenge for my successor to operate in an environment of revenue constraints.”
The city staff grew slightly during Powers’ tenure, adding half a dozen cops and firefighters. At this point, he says, what it needs most is not necessarily more people, but more resources: “It depends on what council and the community want to see be done more or better. We’re past the point of squeezing out efficiencies.”
Ann Arbor’s engaged citizenry doesn’t make managing the budget any easier. “While we value efficiency, I don’t think it’s at the top of our list,” Powers says. “Ann Arbor values process and opportunities for discussion and engagement. People want to know what’s going on, [and] they want to provide input. Staff takes the time to engage with the community, but it does take time.”
Both former police chief John Seto and Powers told the Observer earlier this year that they weren’t job hunting–but Seto is now running the U-M housing security department, and Powers is headed for the Pacific Northwest. His stay was shorter than most administrators’. “Seven years is the national average,” he says. His predecessor lasted ten.
“I was not looking to leave,” he says. “I was approached. And I didn’t care at all about the competition. I’ve learned that it’s got to be a good fit between the council and me–not how I’m better than others that applied.”
Salem thinks he’ll fit. “The mayor and two councilmembers flew in and spent a full day and a half talking to people,” Powers says. “The mayor went to Rotary, and they talked to the Ann Arbor News, to people on the street, to employees.”
While leaving the state is hard–a UP native, he was Marquette County’s administrator for the fifteen years before coming to Ann Arbor–something else about the job appealed to Powers: “They want growth. That’s attractive: to go to a community that’s aligned, a council that says, ‘This is where we want to go, help us get there.'”
That wasn’t always the case here. During his tenure, control of city council seesawed between two loose alliances the Observer dubbed the Activist Coalition and the Back-to-Basics Caucus. Is it more challenging to be an administrator here than in other cities? “Oh, yeah,” says Powers with another brief smile. “Most places don’t have council meetings that go on until one a.m. And six-five, seven-four votes can be tiring on staff.
“I’m not saying that’s bad,” he adds immediately. “It’s great. But it can be a challenge. What are the [city’s] values? If participation by policy makers in administrative decisions is important to the council, if council believes the community wants full representation, then that’s how it’s going to be. But it’s not efficient. Process is time, and time is resources. It costs money.”
Asked what legacy he’s leaving, Powers says he hasn’t given it much thought–“four years is just a blink in the life of an organization.” The most he’ll allow is “I’ve helped. I’ve contributed. And I’m really pleased that I’ve maintained the confidence and trust of council. That would be it.”
That could be easier for his successor: the Activist Coalition picked up two seats in August’s primary, giving it a dominating supermajority. “The next administrator is going to have a more cohesive group to work with on council,” says former mayor John Hieftje, who faced a starkly divided council in his final terms.
Other challenges remain. “We have a lot of ongoing projects the new administrator will have to address,” says current mayor Christopher Taylor. “The train station certainly. The building and planning departments require a great deal of attention. And storm water: the city has a set of storm-water challenges decades in the making, and we need to address them as soon as we can.”
The search for Powers’ successor is just getting under way, and Taylor says he has no one in mind. But he knows the kind of candidate he wants: “Someone who is positive and optimistic, who is excited about doing the day-to-day work of government, who is excited about working with council and their colleagues and the public to make Ann Arbor a better place.”
“I hope council hires somebody who understands there is a high degree of citizen involvement, and you have to be very accountable,” Hieftje says. “If they can cope with that, it’s a good job.”