City Manager Exit StraTegy

Wednesday January 20, 2021

by Craig Richards

LNN USA

Friday February 19, 2021 is the official final day for Aretha Ferrell-Benavides as the Petersburg City Manager. "I want to ensure that we have as smooth a transition as possible," Ferrell-Benavides said. .

But her commitment to the transition does not affect her focus on completing important tasks in the next few weeks.  "We are finishing up our CAFR. We were hoping to have an update call with the S & P over our bond rating, and complete our budget amendment," she said.

Ferrell-Benavides explained that when developing the budget at the beginning of the fiscal year they were very conservative with revenue estimates. That lead to major cuts in expenditures. "What we did discover is that we were so conservative that many of those revenues have come in higher than anticipated. So we want to look into areas that we can invest more into the city were we made the previous cuts," She said.

A main focus on investment is in the newly created customer service area. While there was a discussion about it, the decision was made to partially fund the department.

The City Manager went on to explain the purpose and set-up of the new department. "So downstairs we have set up a call center where people can call and have a live person picking up the phone and answering basis questions about city services," She explained. Ferrell-Benavides said that this was one of the targets for expansion. "We realize that our citizens, because of COVID even more so, aren't able to get out and come downtown - and should not have to come downtown. But we also realized that our billing folks are dealing with customers in person," she said.

Realizing the burden placed on billing and the need to service the citizens this dedicated team was created to answer calls. The customer service department is active right now and is part of the budget amendment designed to fully fund this initiative.

The plan was rolling out in phases so people currently have to call the billing and collection number at 733-2349. between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

While completing the plan for the customer service department is a major focus for the outgoing city manager, she has listed technology as the biggest challenge to the city. This is another area she is attempting to address in her last few weeks.

The city is currently operating on an old financial management system. Ferrell-Benavides feels it is well past time to update this technology. She said the new system would transform efficiency and effectiveness of city government. "So we have to invest in ourselves," she said.

This project is more of a follow through as it was proposed to council at last council meeting. There council gave the go ahead for securing the funding. and starting the process of a multi-year implementation process. "I believe it will definitely transform our processes and and help to create the efficiency that are missing in many of our processes," said Ferrell-Benavides.

According to Ferrell-Benavides the other keys to success for the city moving forward is filling three top open positions.

First she discussed the Fire Chief. She felt the city has secured a solid interim chief to really take a look at fire and help to stabilize operations. But the department's success depends on landing a long-term leader.

The second position she feels is a priority and equally important to fire chief is Director of Economic Development. "Unfortunately we lost our director and the number two person in the department has left," she said. Petersburg is without a head to a economic development department; a [position crucial to developing much needed growth and revenue for the city. Currently  Deputy City Manager Lionel Lyons has taken over the day-to-day oversite until the position is filled.

Finally she believes a permanent City Manager must be hired to keep the city moving forward. Ferrell-Benavides expressed confidence in the transition leadership as Interim City Manager Kenneth Miller, Deputy City Manager Darnetta Tyus and Deputy City Manager Lyons have worked together for a number of years.

But she also stated that there is a lot of work to be done in the city and It is difficult to fill positions during times of interim management. The securing of a permanent City Manager will give the confidence to recruit and retain qualified individuals in this city.

Securing a start date for interim City Manager Kenneth Miller and allowing time for transition to new management will decide how much of Ferrell-Benavides exit strategy will be completed and how much will be altered or abandoned.

Yet speaking to the Interim City Manager Miller by phone, Ferrell-Benavides' transition plan is not likely to be abandoned or altered at all. "You have to look at her experience. She's in the chair. She has developed and will continue to develop a transition plan that will help with structure. So the priorities the city manger has in place now are wise. You pick up her priorities, because she has been so successful, and keep going in that direction," Miller said.

While focused on the transition Ferrell-Benavides did have some final thoughts. "It's been a pleasure and honor to serve the City of Petersburg. I think over the past three years we've come a long way.There's still much work to be done. But I believe through the committemtn of the council and the staff all things are possible. I appreciate how the citizens have welcomed me and made me feel that this is a place I call home. I wish the city much success. And I wish our new leadership and new interim city manager the best," she said.

Craig RIchards is the CEO of LNN USA and can be reached at LNNpublisher@gmail.com

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