IF HE LOOKS familiar, that’s because he is. He’s called Savannah home since 1980, when he began serving as Assistant City Manager. He left in 1989 to take the City Manager position in Columbus, then returned to the helm of Savannah’s government from 1995-2010. He’s since maintained a consulting business, working with city governments throughout Georgia.
The City Council unanimously appointed him Acting City Manager during its October 22 meeting. He’ll assume office November 3, following in Pat Monahan’s footsteps, who’s held the interim job since June 2019. The City has been without a permanent City Manager since Rob Hernandez resigned. The two previous jobholders had similarly short tenures. And just last month, after a nationwide research and interviewing the top three finalists, the Council could not reach consensus.
Enter Michael Brown. He’s on-board for an initial 90 days. His contract automatically renews in three month increments, unless otherwise terminated. He’ll be paid the same as his predecessor, $20,000 per month, plus a $600 monthly car allowance.
On the eve of his appointment, we spoke about his plans, priorities, and the challenges he faces in the months ahead.
CS: You know how difficult it’s been for City Council to find a permanent City Manager. How long are you prepared to stay?
I’ll let others conclude about the difficulty. But how long I stay is up to them. But I would try to stay long enough to get another good manager.
CS: Any idea how long that might take?
Well, it’s not two or three months, but hopefully not much longer than six. It’s speculative because you’re trying to recruit in a pandemic and attract qualified people and that’s not just achieved by advertising. And then get people that can really appreciate Savannah and be devoted to the issues the City faces.
CS: Will you consider making your appointment permanent if Council is interested?
No. I don’t think that’s their intent, and it’s not mine.
CS: What needs to happen on the City Council’s end for them to attract someone of quality they can agree on?
I have some ideas, but I think it’s better for me to describe that and Council to hear about that in the coming weeks. But I think there’s got to be some additional steps taken to attract and get people on board, both the candidates and the elected officials.
CS: Why did you agree to come back, especially in the middle of all this mess?
Well first of all, city government is difficult so you can characterize it any way you want, but this is difficult work. Secondly, I live here. I care about it. Two out of my three children were born here, they grew up here. Also when the Mayor on behalf of Council asked me, I can’t just say no. I get the feeling from Pat, he’s done it willingly. But he didn’t expect it to go on forever. Pat and I joked about it – I’m not a Superhero. He did a great job and now it’s time for someone else to pick it up.
CS: What was the biggest accomplishment of your previous tenure?
I think it was neighborhood revitalization, by doing garden homes in Ashley Midtown, Strathmore Estates on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Fellwood, certainly projects within Cuyler-Brownville, including the Charity Hospital. The planning and infrastructure and neighborhood engagement.
The other thing, and I think they’re dual, was the deplorable drainage situation, flooding really, in which there was a great deal of structural flooding in Savannah. Now, I would never say it’s not a problem, it is, but Savannah can take a much bigger hit literally, much bigger storm, bigger rainfall, we can do that with less damage. It is significantly better. There are people that say no-no that we need to do more and that’s true. Baker, Jenks, and Fell Streets were at the center of the worst structural flooding in the City. People literally woke up in the middle of the night and there was two feet of water in their bedroom. This happened all the time. The City took 2 major steps: 1. Construction of a new, major storm line through the area and a major pump station, and 2. Purchase of approximately 40 homes. The vacated area is now a park. Ardsley Park, too, water went up into the houses often. We constructed large conveyance structures and also retention basins in a number of other neighborhoods, and I estimate we purchased approximately 300 to 400 structures that would have been at a very high risk of flooding even with the structural projects.
CS: The scope of your job isn’t exactly the same as when you left. The budget’s much larger. Probably more city employees, other changes. How does this make your job more challenging?
I don’t think size is the hard part. Sometimes problems that appear to be intractable, that’s the hard part, so you have to work through to get beyond what appears to be intractable and get it into the doable. In some ways truly affordable housing, helping addressing the equity issues of Savannah. Those problems were here. I hope we made some progress, but it was not enough. We MUST address affordable housing and we MUST address the challenges of family incomes and economic equity.
CS: What are your immediate priorities?
The most immediate is working with Council, assisting with why I’m here. They gotta get a permanent manager, and then these normal things, balancing the budget and keeping the projects going while those first two are being done.
CS: There’s an estimated 2020 budget shortfall of $13.2 million. Plus, the City didn’t receive an expected second installment in coronavirus relief from CARES. How will you address the budget shortfall?
I did it for 9 years as assistant, 6 years in Columbus, 15 years as manager in Savannah, and my work involved financial analysis for 150 cities. So am I prepared? I’ll find out. Everything is in the pot. We have to make our choices and some of them are not easy.
CS: Our costly arena concerns many citizens, especially in the age of Covid-19. Is it too late to pull the plug?
Arenas are expensive. Communities our size have one. The community’s decision was to build a center. I built an arena in Columbus. The same exact issues – designing it, keeping costs down, making it attractive, workable. There’s not a magic answer, just stay on it and try to make it work.
CS: You’ve read about some of the divisions within City Council that have impacted their ability to work together. How will you help fix that?
That relationship has to be sound and never stopped in my 15 years as manager or all the years I spent as manager in other places. I’m not going to crow about this, but I wasn’t out of the game for the last 10 years. With my associates, we have worked with about 150 cities, their mayors and their elected officials on local option sales tax, service delivery plans, SPLOST negotiations, fiscal analysis, all over Georgia. I’ve seen these issues in other cities. From Atlanta to Zebulon. It has been highly adversarial at times.
CS: Any last words?
I just want to close with a point because I really think this is important for me personally to approach this with humility. I really mean that. And to approach it with a sense of we care what we’re doing and enjoy that, enjoy serving the community.