Curious George Sails the River of Red

Following a long tradition, new Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas tries to tame the big spenders at City Hall

Gretsas' role in White Plains amounted to a chief-of-staff position. Unlike in Fort Lauderdale, where the city manager is the city's top administrator but must please the mayor and four independently elected commissioners, Gretsas served only Delfino. The pair made their first priority turning around the decaying city. Delfino quickly changed the building height restriction to allow 350-foot towers downtown. He courted developers to build a large entertainment complex and luxury apartment buildings, including a 21-story high rise and 260-unit luxury apartment complex. In 2003, five years after Delfino and Gretsas took the reins, the New York Times published an article headlined "The Renaissance of White Plains."

"I could look out my window at City Hall and see the fruits of my labor," Gretsas remembers. "Things were popping up all over the place."

But Gretsas saw a new challenge when he held the advertisement for Fort Lauderdale city manager. "If you fear failure, you become mediocre," he says with the dry conviction of an infomercial host.

Chad Crowe
Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas (pictured) believes he can clean up the financial mess left by former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson (next photo).
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas (pictured) believes he can clean up the financial mess left by former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson (next photo).

In June 2004, the City Commission voted unanimously to hire Gretsas on a three-year contract starting at $180,000 per year, roughly $3,000 less than Johnson earned. Despite scoring the lowest on the city's leadership tests, Gretsas beat out candidates from Augusta, Georgia, and Johnson City, Tennessee.

Gretsas started fast. He broke the city's nine departments into 16 -- a change he claims saves $250,000 per year -- and fired or asked for resignations from Personnel Director John Panoch, Assistant City Manager Bud Bentley, Communications Director Leslie Backus, and Finance Director Terry Sharp. All four were replaced by Gretsas cronies from New York and New Jersey without a substantial change in salary costs. New Assistant City Manager Kathleen Gunn earns $123,000, while her predecessor took in $140,000. Interim Finance Director Ray Mannion makes $130,000, compared to Sharp's $123,000.

A handful of other senior-level government workers has left voluntarily. More than 300 positions in the city have been left unfilled, and employees for months have worked overtime to compensate for being shorthanded. Many of the midlevel managers who remain have begun to form a management union, fearing they no longer have job security under Gretsas.

"Gretsas isn't a great delegator," says John F. Bailey, who runs a website covering news and politics in White Plains. "He wants to control everything."

All the upheaval at City Hall is part of a plan, Gretsas says as he places both hands palms down on the table at his seventh-floor office at City Hall. He recalls a story about his father, a painting contractor in Manhattan. "There was a tree in our front yard that was dying," Gretsas says. "One Saturday, my father went out there with a saw, and he chopped up that tree. There was hardly anything left -- just a stump... The tree looked terrible."

"Why would you do this?" Gretsas asked his dad.

"For this tree to become healthy," he replied, "you need to cut off the dead branches. You need to have all its energy concentrated on the parts of the tree that still have life left. If the dead branches stay, the tree will die."

Gretsas pauses. "Government is the same way," he explains.

But Gretsas hasn't always chosen appropriate branches to cut. In December, he ordered code officials to investigate Northwest Fort Lauderdale, sparking a U.S. Department of Justice probe into whether the enforcement was racially selective. Additionally, following a well-publicized midnight stroll through Fort Lauderdale's nightlife district, Gretsas brokered a deal with bar owners in Himmarshee Village to stop selling Jell-O shots and beer bottles from minibars. Among Gretsas' obsessive concerns while touring Himmarshee were pieces of dried gum splattered on sidewalks, inspiring Sun-Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo to dub the new manager "Gumshoe Gretsas."

A federal investigation and a gum patrol? Not bad for less than one year on the job.

When it comes to the most important issue the city manager must tackle -- paying down the city's seemingly insurmountable debt -- Gretsas has so far been only marginally effective. The city is now spending less than it was during the same time last year, but Fort Lauderdale's insurance deficit remains around $14 million. Although overtime expenses remain over budget, Gretsas has already locked in a $1.6 million surplus for his first fiscal year and could bring it up to as much as $3 million. He says he'll pay off the insurance deficit in two years and, during that time, would like to raise the contingency fund balance from the current $4 million to $15 million or as much as $40 million.

One of the difficulties is that, although Fort Lauderdale enjoys an $18 billion tax base, skyrocketing property values have little effect on the city's bottom line. Home sales are down, and most of Fort Lauderdale's properties are homesteaded, meaning they bring in only a fraction of their potential tax revenues.

What's more, many of the soaring condominium towers and revitalized neighborhoods are taxed under Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRAs), minigovernments intended to facilitate redevelopment that divert new tax revenue away from the city's squeezed general fund. Thus, taxes from places like Nola Lofts, Avenue Lofts, and Jefferson Place are kept in separate coffers that can be used only for services in their immediate area.

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