Jane Howington, Kalispell’s new city manager, is wasting no time. Upon touching down in Kalispell last week she went straight to a city council meeting from the airport. And after the meeting adjourned, as city officials thanked Interim City Manager Myrt Webb for his tenure, and welcomed Howington, Mayor Pam Kennedy hinted at the magnitude of the tasks facing the new head of Kalispell’s government.
“I hope you’re rested up,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got your plate full for you.”
As she enters her second week of work, Howington’s plate is heaped with expectations: In addition to managing the day-in, day-out functions and services of the city, council members hired her with the understanding that she will make one of her key priorities the build up of Kalispell’s cash reserve, which, at around $226,000, is currently a thin financial cushion for a city of its size.
She must also look at options for the city’s ambulance fund, which is in the red. Kalispell’s Parks and Recreation Department requires careful scrutiny as it enters its first year with a new funding mechanism. The Building Department may be too large given the recent decline in construction.
And then there are political considerations. Five of nine city council members face reelection this year, which means it’s possible Howington could be answering to a very different group of people from those who hired her as soon as mid-November.
But in the face of all this, Howington seems less daunted than simply excited to begin work. In an interview with the Beacon as she finished out the last week in her former home of Dayton, Ohio, she conveyed many of the things council members praised her for when they made the hire: a dry sense of humor, understated intelligence, and the sense that beneath the friendly exterior, she can be tough if necessary.
Since getting the job she said she has been studying Montana law, and participating in frequent calls and e-mails with Kalispell department heads. Webb is staying on in a part-time capacity to ease her transition. In conversation, she is already well versed in recent policy votes by the council and has been keeping up with local news.
But to anyone dissatisfied with Kalispell’s government expecting an immediate sea change the moment Howington takes over the corner office at City Hall, she asks for patience.
“There’s no magic carpetbag that somebody can bring in and roll out a new bag of tricks and make it great – and if people have negative attitudes or low expectations, it’s going to take a while to rebuild that, because I could do a hundred things right but the minute I do the first thing wrong, they’re going to have a knee jerk reaction,” Howington said. “I’m not saying it’s anything good, bad or indifferent; it’s just something that people do, and so over time I have to try and really work hard to build that trust and respect.”
Howington holds two master’s degrees, one in public administration from Miami University of Ohio, and another in urban and regional planning from Texas A&M University. She held several planning jobs in towns throughout Massachusetts in the 1980s, and was city manager of Oxford, Ohio from 2000-2007.
Since 2007, Howington has served as assistant city manager of operations for Dayton, Ohio, where she oversaw departments including police and fire, water, public works, and recreation. She also ran the Human Resources Department for a city bureaucracy of roughly 2,400 people serving a town of about 166,000.
She describes one of her key tasks there as reorganizing the city government to accommodate a declining population. While Dayton was a booming manufacturing town in the 1960s and 1970s, with a population of about 260,000, it is grappling with the same economic difficulties as many other Midwest industrial cities.
“My responsibility in coming to Dayton was to take a bureaucracy that was formed and maintained to deal with a much bigger community than it is now, so you had to reorganize and rearrange departments, and it’s not just downsizing,” Howington said. “You can’t just whack off 20 people and say ‘OK, now that department fits the new paradigm’ – it doesn’t, because there are different needs.”
“It translates to Kalispell because I have to have a pretty intimate knowledge of how operations work, and how the unions work and so on, in order to do what I had to do,” she added.
But despite her résumé and experience, some in the public have questioned the compensation package offered to Howington by the city. Her salary will be $112,500, with $5,000 in deferred retirement contributions, use of a city car and other benefits. At a time when the budget tops the list of Kalispell’s concerns, some have criticized the package, and two city council members voted against adopting her employment contract.
In response, Howington points out that her salary is within the range offered publicly by the city for months, and also within the parameters approved by the council when it cleared Kennedy, Webb and Councilman Duane Larson to negotiate her contract. Furthermore, she hopes outspoken critics of her compensation will allow her the opportunity to demonstrate her ability.
“From my perspective, before you decide that I’m guilty and divorce me, give me a chance to show you what I have to offer,” Howington said.
Upon beginning, Howington said she plans to immediately assess the financial health of the city, including looking at the Parks and Recreation budget, which now operates on its own fund, separate from the general fund, as well as the possibility of reducing the Building Department.
“We need to really work on how we can best deliver those services with a potentially declining workforce,” she said.
Howington is also focused on figuring out what Kalispell needs in terms of capital improvements – which basically means replacing old equipment before repairs become more costly than actually replacing it. It’s an area where the city has cut back in an attempt to rein in its budget over the last year.
“Once you balance your budget taking that away, which a lot of communities have to do because that’s the way, a lot of times, you stop the bleeding initially,” Howington said. “But you need to really pay attention, when somebody’s done that, to reinstate or come up with alternate ways to do that, because the longer you go with older equipment, the harder it’s going to be to get back on track.”
She will spend her first weeks meeting with department heads and touring city facilities. And as she does so, Howington will also be looking for ways to communicate more fully to the public all the city does, and particularly what Kalispell’s city government does right, along with the areas where it comes up short.
“Within any government it’s pretty normal to focus on the negative – local government, especially, doesn’t always bang its own drum,” Howington said. “There has to be a little bit more of a celebration of all the good things happening.”
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