City Manager Ridley talks financial challenges, good times in Mount Pleasant
After a six-month search, a lengthy interview process and minor hiccups in the negotiation phase, Mount Pleasant has officially given Nancy Ridley the title of City Manager.
Ridley was voted in on June 25 but was still in negotiations with city officials about her contract. The vote to accept Ridley’s contract was postponed on July 14 due to Vice Mayor Jim Holton’s absence from the first round of negotiations. Ridley’s contract was officially approved at Monday’s regular City Commission meeting.
Central Michigan Life sat down with Ridley before her contract negotiations to get a better sense of who she was, what she views as some of the biggest challenges facing the city and what she did on her best night out in Mount Pleasant.
Central Michigan Life: What is something that not many people know about you that says something about your character?
Nancy Ridley: I think that’s a similar question to what I had in the interview. What I would indicate there is, as I was growing up as a child, my family moved 14 times before I graduated high school. What I think is important about that is that it taught me a lot of things that impact how I handle issues now. It taught me a lot about flexibility. It taught me about dealing with changing circumstances, and it taught me about making the best out of it regardless of what you can control.
CM Life: If you could make three things better for the people in the city right now, overnight with the snap of a finger, what would they be?
Ridley: Boy, if I had a magic wand that was that powerful, I think the single most important thing would be to find a way to provide the services that our community wants at a much lower tax rate. I think that’s one of our challenges: Providing the needed services but in a way that people can afford them.
CM Life: Is that it? You have three more wishes.
Ridley: I think that would impact so many things that would give us so much more flexibility with everything else.
CM Life: If you could make one change for your city employees, what would it be?
Ridley: Our city staff is fairly low in numbers, so again part of that magic wand is they always want to provide more services, but there’s limited time to be able to do that. So it would be nice to be able to have more resources so that they could do the types of things they would like to do to serve the residents better. Right now, they have to make trade-off decisions every day about what’s the highest priority for the residents. It would be nice if they had more flexibility and didn’t have to make those difficult decisions each day.
CM Life: In all your dealings with the taxpayers, both formal and informal, what do they say they want from city government?
Ridley: I feel like a broken record here. I think what we regularly hear is they want the same or more services but they would like to pay less for them. I think overall they feel pretty positive about our community, but I think it’s just human nature that there are always improvements that people could say they’d like, but they realize the limited resources available.
CM Life: In that same vein, what are the amenities they want in town?
Ridley: You hear a lot of anecdotal stuff, and some of the stuff we heard during the interview process had to do with more amenities that catered to young professionals, more affordable housing for those young professionals and young families. You always hear about different shopping opportunities and you often hear about simply more things to do. But I’m not really sure what that is.
CM Life: What are some things you all are doing to look at what those options could be?
Ridley: The young professionals and young families have been in the city’s mission statement for a number of years now. I don’t know if we have a grand plan to address those, but we’re trying to make steps forward every year. I think one of the things that is on the horizon is some of the redevelopment being looked at downtown. The 200 E. Broadway project and the potential development on the vacant parcel next to city hall – both of those have a component of providing different housing alternatives that I think may be attractive to those young professionals and young families. There’s still a lot more that needs to be looked at, but I don’t have the answers of what those are yet.
CM Life: Speaking about young professionals and keeping them here: That’s us, the students. You know that better than anyone. You were a student at CMU, you stayed here and now look where you are. The Planning Commission wants to do all this rezoning for young professionals, but what do you we owe our landlords if we’re asking them to rezone and redevelop part of the city?
Ridley: We always owe people in the community the input piece of it so we better understand the implications of where we’re headed. The reason I’m a bit stuck on the owe piece of it is because our landlords and developers are already in a difficult situation because of the competition in that market and the growth of what’s happened around the city at a time when CMU’s enrollment is going down. So I think our landlords and developers in that market already have challenges that they’re needing to face and already are looking at different ways to be competitive in that student market. Part of me almost feels like having a new market to attract may be helpful to them because that student one is so tight.
CM Life: What is Mount Pleasant’s greatest untapped resource?
Ridley: I would have to say the students and the classes at Central Michigan University. There’s a lot of potential opportunities there to get ideas and information; to get work done in the community that we don’t always think of tapping into because the amount of time it might take or the amount of planning needed to get at those. And probably one of the best conversations I had during my interim time period was with Dr. (Charles) Crespy from the (College) of Business (Administration). That was his question: What can we do to help the city? I appreciated that he opened that door and I think that’s something we really need to think about. Not only from a city staff perspective, but from a community standpoint to know how we can leverage those resources better.
CM Life: Aside from students being the ‘untapped resource,’ how do you view us in town and what is your perception of CMU students?
Ridley: Certainly this town is dependent on CMU and its students. We wouldn’t be the type of community we are without them. I see them as very valuable to our community. Do some students cause problems some of the time, certainly. That goes without saying. But some residents cause problems some of the time, as well. It’s just one of those things that are part of our community that it is what it is. We need to focus on the positive things they bring to the community.
CM Life: Not to distract from the positives, but what are some of you concerns with students in town?
Ridley: I guess they could be generalized to say that it would be helpful if more students saw Mount Pleasant as their home and treated it as their home. I think the majority of students do that; I think there’s a minority that don’t, but those are the ones we have problems with. Those are the ones who see their stay as short term and are less concerned about the impact they have on the people around them. But again, I really look at that as the minority of students when you look around and see CMU students in our community.
CM Life: When was the last time you had a really good time in Mount Pleasant? What did you do and why?
Ridley: You’re going to laugh at this, but a couple of months ago some friends of ours, my husband and I realized that we’re not very familiar with some of the downtown bars. So we actually the four of us, as well as their daughter and another CMU student, went out and hit three or four of the downtown bars.
CM Life: Cool. Which ones did you go to?
Ridley: I knew you were going to ask that. We started at Marty’s, then we went to The Bird, then we went to The Blue Gator and finally we went to The Blackstone. And it was fun just because it was something that we hadn’t done in a long time.
CM Life: If a citizen asked you about he city’s finances right now, what would you say?
Ridley: I would say that we are fortunate that the city is fairly stable financially, but we still have a situation where our general fund expenses are greater than our general fund revenues. We need to continue to change that balance so that those are more in line, but we’re fortunate from the standpoint that we have the savings account that we can continue to rely on to slowly work ourselves out of that instead of having to make drastic adjustments.
CM Life: Speaking about the differences between expenses and revenues, what are the financial challenges that face the city right now?
Ridley: The challenges are those uncertain revenue sources. Our biggest uncertainty right now has to do with personal property taxes. The state has passed legislation to phase out a large portion of that revenue source for the city. For the city of Mount Pleasant, that has the potential of $600,000 of lost revenue. Right now, there’s a proposal on the August ballot that you wouldn’t know was to help local government if you read the proposal, but the end result of that proposal passing is a large portion of that $600,000 would be reimbursed to the city. So we would not have a net loss, it would just come through our mechanism. We’re very anxious with that August election to see whether that proposal passes citywide. That single piece is our biggest uncertainty.
CM Life: For someone like me who’s not a financial guru, $600,000 sounds like a lot of money. How devastating would that be to the city?
Ridley: We have an about an $11 million general fund budget, so that’s about a five percent reduction.
CM Life: Five percent… That seems smaller than that huge number perception wise, so it doesn’t seem that devastating. Yet it does, however, still look like a hit.
Ridley: It is a hit, especially when you go back to my previous question where I talked about us already having a situation where our revenues are less than our expenses. So if you add another chunk of $600,00 to that, it makes the problem even bigger.
CM Life: What do you think the town’s economic development strategy should be? Should it be more aggressive going after the things we want, or letting them happen naturally?
Ridley: It has to be a combination of both. I think the strategy that (former City Manager Kathie Grinzinger) put in place was to invest our way out of the tough economic times that we were in. She really felt that encouraging economic development and encouraging redevelopment of what we have is critical. I agree with that. The more we’re able to grow the tax base, that helps with the funding side of things. But there’s times when you have to be passive in that, and there’s times when you need to be active. The most obvious time when you need to be active and aggressive is when the proposal that’s in front of you is one that is good for the community and grows the tax base. Those are the ones that we need to find ways to be as helpful as we can be to make sure that development goes forward.
CM Life: What is the city’s role in facilitating growth in development alone?
Ridley: I don’t think local government can be the expert in determining exactly what should be here. I think the market more so dictates what should be here. If the market or a developer says ‘this is what we think needs to be here,’ we should be helping them to be here. But it also can’t be all about businesses; it has to be about neighborhoods, as well. To continue to focus on keeping our neighborhoods healthy because that’s the largest part of our tax base. We can’t forget about the role neighborhoods play.
CM Life: You mentioned moving around a lot helped you deal with change, but how do you deal with adversity?
Ridley: I deal with it from the standpoint of trying to look at ‘what is the real issue that we’re dealing with?’ Not necessarily the symptoms that are around it but to what the core issue is, and then looking at it from both perspectives and what’s important in solving that issue. Trying to come up with multiple ways to address what is surrounding the issue. Certainly, life is much easier if you don’t have adversity, but I don’t know if you get better if you don’t have it. It helps you to grow as a person, as an organization and a community if you do have some of that.
CM Life: Touching on adversity a bit more, the feedback you received from city employees about you during your interview was quite a mixed bag. Some things people said ‘Nancy is going to be great at this,’ but there was also some negative feedback. Speaking specifically to that criticism: Are you a micromanager?
Ridley: I think everybody has instances where they are. I would hope as I transition into this new role that my instances of that will lessen. As the CFO of the organization, there were some instances where I had to dig into some things a little bit deeper to understand their impact on the organization. So I think that’s a fair assessment that employees had, but I’m cognizant of it. That’s the first step: You have to recognize something before you can change it. As I transition, people will see less of that.
CM Life: Also in that interview, city staff said you have a great deal of empathy for residents, which is often viewed as a positive, but they worried that it might shake you too much. Hearing something like that, even just that kind of feedback in general – is it unfair?
Ridley: If people perceive you that way, that’s their reality of you, so I can’t say it’s unfair at all. I was glad to hear some of that because it gives me additional things to think about as we move forward and things I need to pay attention to. I’m a firm believer that you can’t get better if you don’t know what you need to get better at. I didn’t take it as negative, I didn’t take it as bad, I took it as ‘oh geez, thanks. That gives me something to look at.’
CM Life: When you go and visit other cities aside from Mount Pleasant and you see things that make you say ‘we don’t have that,’ what are those things?
Ridley: Keeping in mind that most of my recent travels to other cities have centered around activities that my children are involved in, I’ve seen a lot of sports facilities. So one of the things I see form that perspective that I liked in other cities are the domes and things that allow children to have year-round team activities. My view has been fairly narrow because that’s what we’ve seen as we’ve traveled around.
CM Life: Do you think the residents could benefit from that?
Ridley: I think so because Mount Pleasant, for the families, has a fairly good athletic presence. At the high school level, we’ve had some success recently. We could benefit if some of those activities were year-round.
CM Life: Is there anything that would make you leave Mount Pleasant?
Ridley: There’s always something that would make you leave. For me would be if the town had drastic changes to it and became a community that was different than the community I like living in.
CM Life: Take your city manager hat off for a second. A mother and a wife comes up to you and asks you ‘give me one good reason why I should move to Mount Pleasant?’ What would you tell them?
Ridley: Mount Pleasant was a great place to raise my children because they had so many opportunities that you don’t typically get in a town the size of Mount Pleasant. And those opportunities were there because of the Tribe, and CMU and the amenities in the community. They had opportunities to find things to do and were safe doing them. We didn’t have to drive 20 minutes to get them to other side of town.