Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Since 2014 Rebecca Fleury has been serving as Battle Creek’s City Manager. Although she has dealt with many issues and challenges since that time, she says nothing has compared to what she and her staff experienced in 2020. She recently took the time to share her thoughts on what is passed and what lies ahead in 2021 for the city and its residents.
Q: In one word describe what 2020 was like for you as City Manager and the city as a whole?
A.: Uncertainty, because there were so many things that were coming at us that aren’t normally in the wheelhouse for our city. A global pandemic is not something a city government has had to address. We were looking at what that pandemic did to the economy and determining how to meet the needs of the community in a global pandemic. It changed how we provide services, which was especially difficult to do as a city bus driver, police officer, or firefighter.
Q.: What are the residual impacts for the city from 2020?
A.: I think for me the biggest residual would be the financial impact in government and small businesses. How will our restaurants and bars recover? What are the impacts to local income-tax and state-shared revenue and property taxes around office use and restaurants and bars? How is small business going to recover? We’re seeing what our downtown looks like when everyone is working virtually. When normally there’s upwards of 5,000 people in the core downtown Monday thru Friday, we don’t have nearly that amount of traffic now and we are worried about that.
Early on, when I listened to economists talk, they said there would be a major impact on income-tax and state-shared revenue. As companies see that they can really continue to move forward with their employees working virtually, they are naturally going to have to go back and assess whether they will continue to have this virtual workforce or a hybrid model where some employees are virtual and some come into an office. They may make the decision to no longer have office space outside of their home base. Our buildings have been closed to the public and we have a very limited number of staff working in those buildings.
Q.: What are your top three priorities as City Manager in 2021?
A.: First of all, since we have a relatively new commission, we want to help support them and work with them to understand their direction. Part of that is revisiting priority-based budgeting and community results. We will be revisiting those results and defining them because we use those to prioritize services and resources allocation. Priority-based budgeting is a model so instead of a traditional line-item budgeting process, we take a look at resource allocation and what is most important to city residents and our staff. We have big bubbles like roads and community recreation.
Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury
In 2015, we worked with staff, community members, and elected officials to see what success in economic vitality looks like. We went through a series of surveys. We took all of the programs and costed them out to make sure we were allocating resources to those services most important to the community. We will engage staff, the community, and elected officials, revisit that process, and hope to be through that by the end of March.
Another thing we are doing is establishing a 311 Information Center that is coming online this month. This is a center where all calls into the city will go and we hope it will streamline information and get people to where they need to get. In 2016 and 2017 Facebook became the number one way in which residents engaged with us. Part of the reason for this 311 Center was out of necessity because our budget required us to reduce the number of staff and many of those reductions took effect on Jan. 1 of this year.
The 311 Center is really a hub for information in the city. The two individuals working there will also be able to answer questions that don’t involve the city such as questions about marriage licenses and death certificates which are handled through the county. This will give us the capability to filter specific inquiries to the appropriate department and for the first time gather, track, and analyze data as far as services the city provides. We will be able to track lots of different things and respond from different social media platforms. I know there are a lot of questions right now about COVID-19, the testing, and vaccines.
astly, we hope to see an economic rebound locally, and whatever we can do to support that we will do. We cannot shut off water for nonpayment and we have to take a look at what that will look like if we don’t bring back the water shutoff program and what we can do to make sure people have water. We’re in the middle of a study about that right now. We’re going to see a lot of things that change, especially with the moratoriums on things like rent and mortgage payments, and we’re going to have to figure out what we can do to positively impact those areas.
Residents asked us to waive the online payment convenience fees because paying online is their only option right now and we asked the City Commission to approve a resolution to waive those fees which they did during their meeting on Tuesday. This is an example of listening to the community and trying to fill in these gaps I’m talking about.
Q.: What have you identified as the major projects for the city this year?
A.: We hope that we see some of the investment projects come back. New Holland Brewing Company is starting to ramp up its project again. We want to re-engage projects or continue conversations about projects that have been stalled like our teacher housing incentive program. We are using BCU (Battle Creek Unlimited) and their resources to support small businesses downtown. I take my lead from the City Commission and they’re just getting started. I’m excited to work with them through priority-based budgeting. I want to understand what their projects are going to be. We put our activities together to meet the goals they have defined.
Q.: What are the challenges facing the city this year? How will they be overcome?
The economy and finance are the biggest challenges we have. We have so very little control and we have to be diligent in the management of funds and monitor how the community and small and large businesses and how post-COVID is impacting them. The best we can do as far as being transparent is to continue to be diligent in managing and forecasting the use of taxpayer dollars.
Q.: What types of changes can residents expect to see this year in terms of the way the city will be operating?
In November I had to announce the elimination of 26 positions because of budgetary shortfalls. Some of those took effect on Jan. 1 and some will take effect on July 1. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do. We also had to furlough 100 employees and all but two of them are now back. The reality is we do have fewer staff to provide the level of municipal services our residents expect and count on. We have to do more with less, but that 311 Center will help us manage and track information that will enable us to be the most effective with our residents. We understand that they have expectations of high customer service and we’ll be using that data collected to provide services and allocate those services most effectively. We have an incredible team in Battle Creek and they have been through a lot in 2020. Their changed work environment eliminated teammates and yet they continue to show up every day. We’ve asked an incredible amount of our employees. Our community should know that they’re here and ready to serve them.
Q.: Will there be additional staffing cutbacks or will employees be brought back?
The 26 positions that were eliminated won’t be brought back. I hope there won’t be additional staffing cutback. But if we take even more hits to the three big revenue sources – city income tax, property taxes, and state-revenue sharing – we may have to because by state law we have to balance our budget. I hope the two still on furlough will be able to come back when we are able to open up our recreational facilities and youth programming. We won’t see general public taxes until late spring or early summer. Much of this is really contingent on what COVID cases look like in the county. We have a total now of 519 employees, some are part-time and seasonal. Recreation and youth programming employ a lot of our part-time and seasonal workforce.
Q.: What projects were put on hold in 2020 that may happen in 2021?
The downtown revitalization projects, specifically New Holland, were paused and we’re seeing that ramp up. The project with the Milton building was delayed but we did finish that in 2020 and they have a waiting list for their micro-units. We hope to get the pool repaired at Full Blast. We had talked last year about getting a mobile City Hall up and running, living in this kind of virtual environment the 311 Center is more important and useful than a mobile city hall. We’ll focus on the 311 Center because that can really help with some of the goals we had for the mobile city hall.
We’ve adjusted to do more things online than we ever could before and that is going to continue and expand. We’re learning that we can provide services differently and virtually.
We look forward to events coming back to Kellogg Arena. With new ownership of the McCamly Hotel and the space available at the arena, we’re excited to welcome events back. We’re also looking forward to bringing back sporting events to Bailey Park, which we hope will be back online this summer.
Q.: If you have a wish list of what you'd like to see accomplished this year to move the city forward, what would be on that list and why?
Housing projects. We had a lot of interest in 2020 in providing a variety of housing and development. Hollander Development Corp. is still advancing a tax application to do downtown workforce housing. There is also interest in a project that will provide transitional supportive housing near the area the VOCES headquarters on West Michigan Avenue. We just don’t have enough variety of housing options to support our community.
We continue to advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations and efforts. We would like to see that move forward. The City will undergo an equity audit that will support the DEI work and our work with Communities of Color. We also are looking at an Equity Alliance that could take the place of our Human Relations Board. That effort is being led by the Southwest Michigan Urban League and the African American Collaborative. We want to make that the City is intentional and has community-focused and community-led groups around equity issues.
Q.: How are you prioritizing what really must get done this year?
I will take direction on this from the City Commission and the parameters around the pandemic response.
Q.: What is your message to residents in 2021?
Wear masks, social distance, and get the vaccine because this has been so impactful to the city. I want to thank the community for its amazing passion and spirit to work together to solve issues. People have come together to meet basic needs; this includes churches and neighbors who have stepped in to help out in any way they can. I want the community to know that we continue to take our role as public servants seriously and will continue to be good stewards of public tax dollars.