Michael Rock has been at the helm of Fairfax since January 2008 and is already establishing himself in the small community. The former public works director is no stranger to city politics and says he relished the challenge
“It really is fun to be able to work in a small town because you know everyone’s name and there is a lot less bureaucracy. Fairfax truly is a charming town that has vigilantly protected its character and uniqueness,” he says.
Rock does have his own opinion on how he has had done thus far: “I have kept a very low profile because of the volatile political history of the town. There has been very little volatility in the last few years and I am very proud of that. I prefer to let the town council be front and center.”
The Town of Fairfax is located in the heart of Marin County surrounded by Redwood trees and lush open space 25 miles north of San Francisco. The population is 7,500. Fairfax is a general law town with a five-member council and the mayor is appointed by the council. Fiscal year 2008/09 capital and operating budget is $14 million.
One of the biggest challenges for Fairfax has been maintaining the town’s feel of Mom and Pop shops. Rock said only 7 percent of the town’s budget is generated from sales tax and it is working aggressively to increase this revenue source.
“It has been a challenging endeavor,” Rock shares. “The town passed an ordinance years ago that does not allow any chain stores or businesses in Fairfax. The town is essentially built out and land values are some of the highest in the nation making any commercial development difficult. The town does not have an RDA making it more difficult to attract businesses. The residents feel very strongly about maintaining the character of the town (voted the ‘Best Town in Marin County’ this year) and thus any development, however small, is examined carefully by the town council and residents alike.”
However, Rock adds that there is an agreement that the 12-acre commercial property known as Fair-Anselm needs to be redeveloped. It was built in the 1960s and is considered “quite antiquated.”
“The property is for sale and I think the community will embrace a redevelopment plan if it preserves the character of the town and is a ‘green’ building while also providing some much needed commercial and possibly some affordable housing units,” he says.
Because the economy has been tough on all cities including smaller towns like Fairfax, it has been difficult to keep its head afloat, but Rock says he is working on it.
“The town has for many years practiced fiscal prudency. Fairfax is always under-staffed and so we have not made any staffing changes yet. However, if the state takes $250,000 of our property tax revenues to balance the state budget and Measure F is not renewed by the June 30, 2010 deadline the town will face a $720,000 deficit which will hit in late 2010. A deficit that large would require drastic changes to the budget, including staff reductions and service reductions.”
The voters of Fairfax approved Measure F, a 5-year $125 per business occupancy and dwelling unit municipal services tax in 2005. This generates $465,000 per year for the town and, at the time, kept the town from sinking into bankruptcy because of a severe flood that occurred just months after Measure F was approved. The flood cost the town $600,000 of its own money – after all of the FEMA monies were reimbursed, Rock says.
“Much of this cost was the incredible amount of staff time that was devoted to the flood and staff time to recover monies from FEMA,” he says.
Town hall, the police station and the fire station were flooded along with many businesses and residences in the downtown area.
“The town is going to ask the voters to renew Measure F at the same rate of $125 per business occupancy and dwelling unit. Should Measure F fail and the state steals our property tax, the town could be in the hole by $715,000 in the span of just two years,” Rock says.
Bottom-line: The biggest issue facing the town is renewing Measure F which will allow the town to stay afloat and deliver public safety and other services at a level that is acceptable. The town already has the lowest number of employees per capita and the lowest salaries of any town in Marin County.
“The recent election did not help local government. However, it will depend on whether the state steals local property tax revenues to balance the budget,” Rock reports. “Keep in mind the ‘steal’ is only $2 billion and the problem is now about $24 billion. It seems to me that it would be foolish to create such a hardship on local governments to close less than 10 percent of the state deficit problem. Some local governments will file for bankruptcy over losing eight percent of their property tax and others will have drastic service reductions and will lay off a large portion of their staff creating more unemployment in the state and thus reducing the state’s revenues even more.”
What does Rock think will actually happen? He says it is difficult to predict the future, but he is trying to stay positive.
“It is difficult to predict. As recently as last week the governor stated he does not want to steal local property tax revenues. We shall see,” Rock says.
Since he took office in January, he has had his hands pretty full. Another challenge of course, has been the enormous workload.
“Since the town is fiscally prudent, and thus under-staffed, time management skills are incredibly important. Clearly outlining priorities for the town council and the residents and setting reasonable expectations based on the limited staff is an ongoing process,” he says.
But workload aside, he says the job is definitely what he expected it to be and then some.
“Having spent 18 years in local government it was what I expected. The only unexpected aspect of the job is the depth of the recession and state budget deficit,” he says.
As for what lies ahead for one of the last small towns in the Golden State, Rock believes there are three possible outcomes.
“Best case scenario is the state does not take the 8 percent property tax grab and the residents renew Measure F. Under that scenario the town will continue to provide the level of service we are providing now – which is a ‘no frills’ government,” Rock says.
A second scenario is that the state steals the town’s property taxes and the residents renew Measure F, which would create some hardship until “the state pays back the $250,000 they stole.”
“The third scenario is bleak; where the state steals our money and the residents do not renew Measure F creating a $720,000 deficit which has the potential to sink the town, at least for a while,” he notes.
Advice for Others
Rock has some sound advice for other small town managers that would include “prioritizing for the community and the council what actually can be accomplished with the limited staff.”
“In Fairfax, this was accomplished through a strategic plan and a five-year financial strategic plan, thanks to (former Town Manager) Linda Kelly for writing these documents and getting the council to adopt them,” he says.
Rock says he has followed the plans and reminded the council and the community that with only 28 employees and a $6.9 million annual operating budget (and possibly shrinking) there is only so much it can do.
“I believe that message has gotten through. The one other thing I would advise is to always be a little under staffed as a way to avoid layoffs and as a way to be fiscally prudent,” he adds.
The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to PublicCEO.com and may be reached via e-mail at DLSwriter@cox.net