Professional local government managers must have a host of skills and experience in financial management and planning, economic development, and navigating financial crises.

Above all, professional managers must be stewards of public resources, ensuring that residents’ income, sales, and property taxes are low and well spent.

Professional management does pay off, both figuratively and literally. Of the 87 U.S. cities that received Moody’s highest rating (Aaa) as of December 2009, 61 percent were professionally managed.

Financial management and planning

Managers oversee their local government’s budgetary process and, working with the locality’s financial officer, administer the resulting budget. They must ensure that department heads provide accurate information and, if necessary, balance competing needs.

  • Under the leadership of City Manager Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio is the only major city with a population of more than one million people to achieve a ‘AAA’ bond rating, the highest possible, from all three major rating agencies – Standard & Poor’s, Fitch, and Moody’s.
  • Sometimes a manager inherits financial problems when he or she takes the job and must stabilize the government financially. Brentwood, TN, Manager Michael Walker took his city from turmoil to a Aaa bond rating.
  • Other communities may be stable in the short run but want to ensure their financial viability longer term. Beverly Hills, CA, Manager Jeff Kolin coordinated a strategic effort, based on input from the city council, city departments, and key groups in the community, to strengthen the city’s economic base long term by developing a five-year Economic Sustainability Plan.
  • In Lynchburg, VA, consistent, responsible leadership and planning by City Manager Kim Payne and Deputy City Manager Bonnie Svrcek, in collaboration with successive city councils, has kept the city stable even through tough economic times.

Economic development

A variety of situations can inspire economic development.

In some cases, it’s a matter of taking advantage of what a locality already has to offer.

  • Gatlinburg, TN, Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle spearheaded strategic economic development projects to attract tourists, capitalizing on the city’s proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most visited national parks in the country.

Other times, economic development requires finding and bringing in resources.

Leadership in financial crises

Most local governments balance their budgets. That means no deficit spending and hard choices in tough economic times.

Since the economic downturn of 2008, and the significantly reduced federal and state contributions to local budgets, local governments have scrutinized the services they provide and how they provide them. Although governments have begun a slow and gradual recovery, they continue to make hard decisions about what services they will provide.

Governments can weather financial crises if they are prepared for changes in the economy; have leaders with strong analytical and decision-making skills; and anticipate downturns by having priorities, goals, and strategies in place.

Luckily, a hallmark of professional managers is their ability to see crises as the opportunity for innovative changes. As some managers like to say, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste!”

  • When Phoenix, AZ, faced a major deficit, City Manager David Cavazos created an Innovation and Efficiency Task Force composed of city staff and the public. Since its inception, the task force has found ways to save the city nearly $60 million, ensuring its fiscal health, structurally balanced budget, and continued AAA bond rating.
  • In 2007, St. Lucie County, FL, had one of the largest home foreclosure rates in the country. The county was financially sound so, rather than wait for federal stimulus money to trickle down, county commissioners decided to stimulate the economy locally.

Learn more about the role of professional managers in fiscal crises: