In summer 2012, what began as a quest for knowledge and information by Steve Nunnery, Zachary’s chief financial officer, and Chris Calbert, the city’s chief administrative officer, would evolve into a project gathering information on mid-sized cities around the state and one Mississippi town.
Mayor David Amrhein called for the project, A Mid-Size Cities Study, at the urging of staffers who had attended an earlier Mid-Size Cities conference in Bogalusa. The casual roundtable discussions at the 2012 conference proved to be a wealth of information but left Nunnery and Calbert and many who attended with more questions than answers about issues plaguing their cities.
“In retrospect, it became clear that Zachary’s problems were not unique to Zachary alone,” Calbert said. “The issues surrounding our city were commonly shared concerns among other Louisiana cities of comparable size.”
With their proposal request approved by Amrhein, Nunnery and Calbert launched a 21-city initiative visiting and interviewing mayors and their staffs while gathering, assessing, sharing and implementing for use the information they gleaned from each city.
“The intent was to help us learn more about comparably sized governments, their people and processes while at the same time forcing us to conduct a rigid self-analysis and honest appraisal of our own operations,” Amrhein said.
What started as a 12-question survey in the project’s infancy rapidly escalated into a comprehensive 37-question study before all of the interviews with the mayors could be concluded, Calbert said.
“Ironically, the majority of the newer questions or concerns surfaced during casual conversations nearer the end of most of our scheduled interviews,” Calbert said.
The additional questions added over the life of the project required Nunnery and Calbert to re-engage with cities they contacted early on in the interview process.
“We wanted to give them the opportunity to respond to the newer queries,” Nunnery said. “Needless to say, the project quickly gained momentum, turning into an in-depth study, and with each new city we visited, the content, discussion and categorical inclusion of information increased.”
It was increasingly obvious to both Nunnery and Calbert they were onto something much bigger than they had first imagined. The two visited 31 parishes — logging 2,000 miles on a budget of less than $1,500 that included gas, meals and lodging.
“This journey provided us with the impetus necessary to conduct a self-evaluation, ultimately revealing more about ourselves than could ever have been determined through independent study or outside contractor assistance, all at a fraction of the cost,” Nunnery said.
Cities and mayors interviewed in chronological order by date of visit began with Denham Springs in May 2012, followed by Walker, Mandeville, Bogalusa, Baker, Hammond, Natchitoches, Deridder, Pineville, Sulphur, Covington, Slidell, Gretna, Gonzales, Opelousas, Eunice, Bastrop, West Monroe, Marksville and New Roads. The final city/mayor to be interviewed, Natchez, Mississippi, on Jan. 18, 2013, was the city most like Zachary, Calbert said.
Welcomed by everyone they met, Nunnery and Calbert said they were amazed at the sharing of information by each participating mayor and city.
“The information gathered proved to be invaluable as we amassed, evaluated, compared and compiled all the data,” Calbert said. “The personal encouragements and shared experiences along the way were thought provoking and deeply appreciated, which further served to strengthen our resolve and commitment to the study.”
The Zachary department heads returned with reams of information, which they began to process, fact-check for accuracy and carefully reduce for inclusion into a simple, easy-to-reference study.
The study included questions about salaries of mayor, council, fire and police chiefs, public works director and city attorney; budgets of city, fire and police as well as number of full-time employees at each; general fund budget/capital expenditures; sales tax revenues; civil service; hours of operation; official journal policies; fire and police chiefs; public works director; fire rating; square mileage of city; crime rate; shift hours of police department; flood insurance rating; city attorney; hourly rate of city attorney; and utility services provided.
“We knew there was an untapped wealth of knowledge out there but had no idea just how similar issues facing our city were to other cities,” Calbert said.
Compensation for each city’s participation was a copy of the study. Nunnery and Calbert said the feedback and overwhelming response from the mayors and cities that have received the study have been tremendously positive.
“Much has been learned by tapping the expertise, experience and leadership we both knew was out there in great abundance,” Nunnery said.
The study won an honorable mention in the 2013 Community Achievement Awards competition sponsored by the Louisiana Municipal Association, Louisiana Department of Economic Development and Louisiana Industrial Development Executives Association.
At a recent City Council meeting, Toye Taylor, assistant director of municipal affairs for LMA, presented the award to Amrhein, who accepted the honor on behalf of the city of Zachary.