The former Assistant City Manager of the City of Novato became the City Manager of St. Helena on Aug. 3.
“So, far it really has been great,” she says. “Like all new jobs, the first few weeks are always hectic and you spend a lot of time orienting yourself. I’ve been out and about and folks have been generous with their time. I have seen St. Helena through their eyes and this is helpful. I think it is important to get a variety of perspectives on issues.”
Those issues typically revolve around tourism and wine.
St. Helena has a population of 6,000 and it is located in the Napa Valley. It has been reported that it has an annual budget of about $18 million – actually more than half of Novato’s budget.
Prior to her position in Novato, where she served for six years, Neilan worked for the City of Sonoma from 1994 to 2003. She believes all of years in public office combined can only help her in making St. Helena a better place to live and work.
Neilan recently took a few minutes to talk with publicceo.com about what lies ahead for St. Helena and more.
Q: How has the economy affected St. Helena since it is a tourist destination?
A: Actually, it is holding its own and I think Napa County in general, is dong the same. A lot of our revenue is generated from sales tax, meaning that people spend in shops, restaurants and on hotels. We are only down by a small percentage – maybe 1 percent, which is probably typical of the local tourist industry. I think it is because fewer people are spending nights here.
Q: What happens when the tourists go home?
A: Wine country is different; there is only a brief slow down from January to February. We don’t get the traffic and the locals like the fact that they can get around and visit their favorite restaurants.
Q: St. Helena doesn’t allow major retail chains … why not?
A: We have boutiques, and individual stores that may be have one other outlet in one neighboring destination. It is a historic community that is 100+ years; the downtown is attractive and we have been good about retaining these structures. It’s a beautiful little community; we do not want to add large retail chains which could change the flavor.
Q: Who resides in St. Helena?
A: We have a large percentage of people who are associated with the wine industry … it is not inexpensive to live here. There is a mixture of ages — it is family oriented, but it also has a good sized population of retirees. It is not a place where people move to retire. The median home is $1 million.
Q: What is one of the biggest issues in St. Helena?
A: Affordable housing is always an issue here as is water. Making sure housing is affordable to all incomes, and combating the traffic when tourists are here. Water weighs upon many minds because we’re so invested in grape growing. Most of Napa is agricultural, or is grape growing and that means we need water. There is always tension between the need to keep the industry going and by allowing additional vineyards going and the water they require that needs to be provided. Then, we have people who think the water is a finite resource and there should be a limitation — if not on the wine industry itself but on any other growth that might be proposed.
Q: It seems to be a constant debate…
A: It is an ongoing debate — are we running out of water or aren’t we? Do we have additional water to provide for the planned development in 10 years or don’t we … is there an answer? Probably not one that everyone would agree with. The City has done a few studies to determine the ground water volume and people debate those studies. I don’t think it is easy to bring a definitive decision … it isn’t cut and dry.
Q: What was your biggest challenge while in Novato?
A: The undertaking process to reduce the City’s operating budget. In the last 12-18 months, more than $4 million had been eliminated from a $33 million budget, including reductions in staffing (14 positions) and reduced salaries/benefits for employees.
Q: .What did you learn in the role that you will take to your new role?
A: Problem solving; crisis management; patience; experience with projects involving multiple public agencies and stakeholder groups.
Q: What were some of the ways you were able to help, and/or make changes in Novato while you served as assistant city manager?
A: I improved working conditions for employees by moving city offices out of historic but dilapidated city owned buildings into modern office space; improved the City’s technology infrastructure leading to increased productivity; streamlined many internal procedures that save money and time for employees and customers.
Q: Do you prefer Novato over St. Helena?
A: They are different. In Novato, I was the assistant city manager and being city manager has been something that I have wanted to do for a while. I am enjoying the community now, but Novato was good, too. I feel comfortable and the issues are ones that I believe I can assist with and hopefully, will be rewarding for me over time.
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