In Your Community Q&A: Dennis LaForest, St. Johns City Manager
St. Johns is a city of 7,485 people located about 20 miles north of Lansing. Consumers Energy provides both gas and electricity to the city. We are grateful Dennis took a few minutes to answer some questions about his role as city manager.
What are the major challenges facing St. Johns in the next 12 months?
The challenges of today are the same challenges we’ve been grappling with for several years now. We are affected by the national and state economic crisis. High unemployment rates and consequent instability in the housing market, including the continuing wave of foreclosures, affects the local economy. Our revenue stream has been diminished by reduced revenue sharing from the State and reduced property tax collection. We anticipate that in the next 12 months state revenue sharing will be cut again, and will be below 1995 levels. Tax revenues will also continue to decline until the Legislature addresses the tax structure.
We also are facing rising employee costs because of increased pension and health care costs. These increases directly reflects the economic uncertainty that we hear and see everyday.
What has changed the most in the last five years in how you manage St. Johns?
Management has had to be very creative in maintaining the same level of services for its residents in the face of a reduced operating budget and decreased staffing levels. We have to scrutinize every expense, every training dollar in order to get maximum bang for the public buck. We promote competition for public works projects and other large purchases through the bidding process. We cross-train our employees so we can continue to do more with less. We solicit the input of staff with respect to creating a leaner budget and a better, more efficient way of caring out our mission.
What has St. Johns done to boost energy efficiency in its operation?
We did an entire energy audit for all departments which provided us with a blueprint and laundry list for reducing energy costs. We applied for grants through the Department of Energy/American Recovery Re-investment Act to assist us in replacing obsolete equipment. At the wastewater treatment plant we recently did a major renovation which included a methane recapture system to heat and cool our plant facilities. We are currently studying the most recent technology as concerns public street lighting in anticipation of reducing/controlling electrical costs in this area.
What are some of our favorite things to do in St. Johns?
I enjoy being involved in community projects through the St. Johns Rotary Club and the Clinton County Chamber of Commerce. I like to go to our City Park to enjoy the park trails and the weekly musical performances at our outdoor Performance Shell. Occasionally I like to take my wife out to the nearby Emerald Golf course for a round of golf.
What is the secret to managing staff?
Delegate when it makes the most sense. Listen to staff and residents. Provide effective and constructive feedback. Allow an environment where mistakes are used as training/teaching tools. Coach to win.
What tips would you give a City Manager who is just starting out?
This is a “people’s business”. You must be able to relate to people and their concerns in order to succeed. Be a team builder. Don’t feel you need to control every decision. Get the right people on bus.