Q & A: Harry Black discusses budget, COVID and looking to the city's future
City's manager said Stockton government has a "common focus"
It’s the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, not New Year’s Day, that often signifies a fresh start to the calendar of local and statewide governance in California.
Stockton City Council passed its 2022-2023 budget last week, which will go into effect in less than a week. So Stocktonia News Service sat down this week with City Manager Harry Black for a sort of yearly check up.
Black began his tenure as Stockton’s city manager just three weeks before statewide shutdowns were implemented in California during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He says Stockton is coming out of the pandemic even stronger from a financial management standpoint than going in.
Following bankruptcy, Stockton rose to be one of the most fiscally healthy cities nationally, though its standing did slip from the fourth spot to the 16th in 2022.
The city’s strategy has been to hope for the best but expect the worst, he said.
“As a city government, all the ships are sailing in the same direction. We have common focus, as an organization, from our governing body all the way down to staff,’ Black said. “We’re focusing on things with an eye towards just being very strategic and very intentional. And it’s all about, how do we make a difference? And how do we know we’re making a difference?”
In terms of the upcoming year’s budget, Black is most proud of how everything came together and the work put in by staff.
“I fully enjoy watching that. Because it’s all for the community,” Black said. “People who are dedicated and committed to serving and making certain that we are good stewards of the people’s money is really inspiring to see and comforting to see as well.”
Here’s what Black says Stocktonians can expect, look forward to and see the city continuing working on during the upcoming year.
(Questions and answers were edited for length, clarity and structure.)
What can Stocktonians expect to see in the final version of the budget?
This budget represents the city’s official transition to a different phase of its evolution. Ten to 12 years ago, the city experienced a financial crisis. It engaged the financial crisis in a very, very responsible way. I study cities that have gone through these problems, and Stockton would get an A plus. Because it made a lot of hard decisions — a lot of hard choices — which is not typically done. They went all in. And we’re benefiting from those past decisions today. The city in essence had to get smaller to get better.
And that has been some of the complaints from the community, right? Such as having programs and things like that cut.
Yeah. So now we are in a fiscally healthy state. It’s set up to be sustainable. And so this budget represents the next iteration. In essence, it represents our very cautious and measured transition to more of a growth mentality.
Before it was just about getting healthy, and now it’s like we can do stuff.
Basically. That’s it in a nutshell. We can begin that thought process. And this budget reflects that.
What are some of the budget highlights?
We’ve added a few additional positions to the budget. This budget is going to allow us to become more competitive in terms of workforce. Right now, there’s massive, ferocious competition for labor across the country. It was going to be that way anyway, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated it. But we’ve been strategically spending our Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money, our American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money, with a focus on the community, focus on investment. We’re going to be able to do some things. With this budget, we’re planning to reopen Fire Station 1, which has been closed for quite some time. We’ll also be opening the Northeast library and Recreation Center.
(Blacksaid more highlights can be found on page A-5 of the proposed budget book.)
You’ve said that Stockton built up a financial reserve that provided a lot of cushioning going into the COVID-19 pandemic. Is that still the case?
The city, coming out of bankruptcy, developed a very strong reserve policy. And we still adhere to that. Because it just makes good sense to have appropriate reserves available, whether you need them or not. Stockton, coming out of the bankruptcy, developed and adopted very, very solid fiscal policy and practices. And those things aren’t only helping us today, but will continue to help the city into the future.
What are some of the big issues that Stockton still needs to deal with? Have they changed? Are they different?
One of the biggest, if not the biggest issue is figuring out how to outsmart this housing and homelessness challenge that we face. And it’s not just Stockton, it’s the entire west coast, it’s the entire country. But it’s more exacerbated on the West Coast because you have more people.
It’s also a little bit more expensive.
It’s a whole lot more. Coming from the Midwest, this is beyond sticker shock. So we’re all aligned from the top down in terms of what our priorities are and what our vision is, in terms of helping to increase housing stock here in Stockton but also how we want to engage the homelessness issue and how we’re leveraging our external partners to help do that. We’re making some progress, but the problem is so big that I don’t think that the solution has been envisioned or created yet.
So there’s no one magic solution to solve it.
I use the term hygiene, which connotes that there is not one thing that you do. You get up in the morning, you brush your teeth, you shave, you take a shower. You do a whole bunch of different things to get yourself ready to go out and go to work. It’s the same thing here. It’s gonna require multiple elements and, ultimately, it’s going to require some sort of a Marshall Plan-type of approach at the state level all the way down. It can’t be solved in Stockton. We can do things that provide maintenance and manage it to some extent but we can’t solve it. This is so much bigger than a person, so much bigger than a city, so much bigger than a county. This is going to require a colossal strategy solution, which will have multiple moving parts that are moving in harmony and are in sync with one another.
What do you want Stocktonians who are frustrated with the effects of homelessnes in the city?
We understand the frustration. We’re frustrated. They need to know that we’re doing a lot. We spend millions of dollars a year on homelessness- and housing-related matters. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars in terms of supporting affordable housing projects, including the building of about 600 units of affordable housing, with another almost 400 in the pipeline. We support all of our homelessness-related partners out there, and we’ll continue to do that. We spent a lot of money trying to keep the city clean through our Clean City Initiative. We remove tons and tons and tons of trash every year.
How is the city doing in terms of shootings and violent crime?
Our shootings are down 17% from last year. We had a spike in February, but homicides have since been tapering off. I suspect, knock on wood, that we’re gonna probably going to end the year somewhere around where we ended last year, which was a low year for homicides. We had 39 homicides last year. One homicide is one homicide too many, but from a comparative standpoint, if you look at other cities, you’re going to be surprised with Stockton where it is in terms of homicides.
Previously, you have talked about making Stockton a destination for both people and businesses, as well as working toward improving the city’s reputation. Is that part of this next phase?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a continuation, really. Making a city a destination requires investments, it requires development. But coequally, it requires us to make certain that we are the best managed government organization that we can be. Because people pay attention to that. People who are making investment decisions, they want to know how competent and how effective the local government is, that local government is going to be a good partner for them. And as we get better, more effective, more efficient, in terms of how we do our work, it becomes noticeable and it helps to make the city that much more bankable.
So just continuing to do the work that the city is already doing will accomplish those goals.
And managing it properly, responsibly and competently.
Your background in city government has shown a specialization in finances, analytics and technology. How have you utilized those skills here in Stockton?
It’s been really refreshing being here because, again, Stockton had already put itself on a path of financial management effectiveness with its long-range financial plan. So for me, it’s not to mess it up. And it’s knowing that our financial management team knows what they’re doing. They’re on top of everything. And I can validate that based on my own experience. It’s my job to see how I can be helpful to them and that process. Stockton is not broken. The goal here is to bring to bear my knowledge, my experience and my skills to help them to enhance what’s already been developing and help it to go to the next level.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you foresee in the next fiscal year?
I think workforce challenges will be at the top of the list. Human capital management is now a focal point across the country. We’re going to be spending a lot of time focusing on people, because the supply of people that are out there is a shallow pool. We will have to focus more on accelerating the development of existing staff, while also looking to recruit from outside. But coequally, we’re gonna have to spend a lot of time and investment in overall talent development.
And what are you looking most forward to this next fiscal year?
There’s so much. We’ve done a lot, we’re doing a lot. Again, opening up the fire station, a new library community center. I look forward to continuing to reactivate our public spaces, continuing our digital equity efforts in terms of connecting families who are not currently connected. We will be launching a crisis intervention program for the city. And I look forward to working with the new chief in terms of his efforts to evolve the department to its next iteration. And that’s going to involve very aggressive, very intentional and very innovative recruitment efforts. Also, just continuing on with our performance management and data analytics efforts, and just becoming more and more customer centric.
Obviously, you were at the council meeting and heard me read the following into the record:
First: I’m currently president of the Friends of the Stockton Public Library. As such, I’d like to thank you for increasing the library’s budget and for continuing to work toward expanding library services to meet the levels appropriate for a city of 300,000 people.
Secondly: The annual budget you are considering tonight totals $899 million dollars. Of that, $50,000.00 is allocated for the Stockton Arts Commission, and $50,000.00 for Public Art. Frankly, this is insulting. In 2001 the council endowed the Arts Commission with $1.3 million dollars from the sale of the landfill. In 2012 the city unceremoniously swept that endowment money back into the general fund during the bankruptcy proceedings. At that time there was an MOU on the city manager’s desk to allow the newly created Arts Foundation to administer the $1.3 million endowment on behalf the Arts Commission. When a group from our arts community met recently to revisit this issue with the current city manager, Mr. Black was dismissive. The council has the authority to reinstate that endowment money back to the Arts Commission and assign the Arts Foundation to manage it on their behalf. $1.3 million amounts to less than 2/10ths of 1% of the city’s annual budget. It is, as one former city manager put it, “budget dust”. I suspect the “wiggle room” or “fudge factor” in the budget is far greater than 2/10ths of 1%. I’m here tonight to ask that you return the $1.3 million endowment back to the Arts Commission. It literally is the least you can do for the arts in our community. Thank you.
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