Retiring City Administrator Tina Volek took some time Saturday to reflect on her 13 years working for the city of Billings.
Volek will step down Sept. 30 after serving 10 years in the job and three more as assistant and interim city administrator. She is the longest-serving city administrator in the city’s history.
Volek spoke at a brunch hosted by the Billings branch of the American Association of University Women at Montana State University Billings. She participated in a question-and-answer format, with a series of queries posed by AAUW member Barbara Gulick, the group's legislation and public policy chair.
Gulick noted that Volek stayed mainly under the radar during her time as city administrator, leaving the spotlight on the mayor and city council. Volek admitted it was partly a matter of personality and partly the influence of her parents, both who were teachers.
“I was reared by people who believed in service but not self-aggrandizement,” she told the audience of about 25 people.
Along with that, Volek said, the mayor and city council are elected. They represent a constituency and generally should be the ones who speak on behalf of the people they serve, to give Volek direction.
Asked the greatest challenge she faced during her tenure as city administrator, Volek said “undoubtedly, from my perspective, finances.” When she first came to Billings, the city was about to put a public safety levy on the ballot.
“Had that ballot not been approved we would have been laying off police and firefighters, which in this city would have been a horrible consequence,” she said.
The city has in its charter a mill levy cap of 74 mills for the general fund and the public safety fund, which can be difficult. But other steps have helped strengthen the city's position.
One of Volek’s first tasks as city administrator was to build the city’s reserves. And the City Council has been dedicated to the idea of responsive finances.
“And so we went from having a B bond rating when I got here to having an AA2 bond rating,” she said.
Volek added that Billings has been named the seventh-best managed city in the country for the past two years, a concerted effort by a number of people, she said.
Other issues that have proved difficult include the sale of medical marijuana and the nondiscrimination ordinance, “but all in all, finances are the largest issue,” she said.
As for her greatest personal challenge, Volek said dealing with a large range of issues has kept her on her toes. Volek, who has been in city management for 39 years said it’s time for her to leave and for the city to hire a new city administrator.
“I have done, and I do best, stabilize, hold steady and financially bring us to a point where we’re in pretty good shape,” she said. “But it is time for someone new with a better grasp of technology.”
Volek joked that she had lost her cell phone for a week “and it didn’t bother me in the least.”
Looking forward, Volek said it will be a time of transition with the upcoming election providing the city with a new mayor and potentially several new council members.
And long-term financial planning will continue to be a focus. Financial stability is crucial, Volek said, saying she’s an advocate of a local option tax.
Billings sees between three and five million visitors a year who stay in hotels and eat and drink in the city’s restaurants. And a local option tax would tap into a new source of revenue.
“We need to find a way of not putting everything on the backs of property owners,” she said.
Gulick asked if Volek had any general advice for someone else in her position. It's important, Volek said, to keep in mind that the council and mayor are elected by the people. And second, to work with staff as a team.
“I believe we have developed a team mentality and approach," she said. "I strongly urge my successor to keep working with that team and to try and make it strong and grow. And then more importantly, to listen.”
At the start of her tenure, Volek met with the various neighborhood task forces and other groups to get a handle on community concerns.
“That’s crucial,” she said. “And communicate, communicate, communicate.”
Asked if she had an issue she wanted to address, Volek mentioned the city charter, which she called the city's constitution. Every 10 years, citizens are asked to vote on whether to create a charter commission, composed of elected community members, to implement needed changes.
The last two times, in 2004 and 2014, voters turned down the opportunity, she said. The last time a commission was formed was 20 years ago.
But there has been talk on the Billings City Council of having an independent attorney or requiring an independent budget officer to report directly to the council. Any such decisions would require a vote by the public, Volek said.
Perhaps it’s time for an elected commission to scrutinize the charter as a whole, she said.
“I really do think rather than piecemeal it--it is really important that we start talking about a renewed look at the charter with a commission elected by the city’s people to make the city government what you want it to be,” Volek said.