Nine months ago, Jim Berzina began his duties as Murphy’s Interim City Manager replacing Craig Sherwood who had resigned from the position. With the hiring of James Fisher, Murphy’s new permanent City Manager who began on March 31st, Mr. Berzina returned to Wichita Falls. He plans to “really retire” and do some traveling with his wife Carol who has been most patient in letting Murphy borrow her husband since June of 2007.
In the Messenger’s introductory story on Mr. Berzina, he told us, “I am here to jump in and help and to actively participate even though I am here in an ‘interim’ role.” We thought it would be interesting to get his perspective on how the jump and his landing went.
When he first arrived he stated he had three primary areas he felt he should focus his attention. First was to help the City Council to work smoothly with each other and especially the city staff. The second priority area was to enable staff to perform their jobs and assist them in the performance of their duties. Finally, to work with the Council and the staff to complete many of the programs and projects that had been stalled for several years. He stated, “It was important to show the citizens of Murphy that the city could finish the projects that were funded and ready to start.”
He started as Interim City Manager in June 2007 and three members of the City Council had just been elected the previous month. They joined four other Councilmembers and together they faced numerous problems they did not initiate but inherited. Many of these problems were financial and a direct result of legal costs and lawsuits associated primarily with the municipal building complex. In addition to a settlement with the primary building contractor, AUI, the City of Murphy lost a lawsuit brought by Pavecon, a sub-contractor on the project, and the city was ordered to pay approximately $600,000 from that court decision. The architect for the buildings presented the city for the bill for $96,000 that was required for extra services for building inspection oversight due to delays in construction. The city also paid out over $300,000 severance payment to the previous City Manager in accordance with an employment agreement put in place by a former City Council.
The City of Murphy is facing a revenue problem similar to most cities, in that operating revenues are not increasing and in some categories showing a decline. Revenue from building permits has fallen from approximately $1.4 million dollars to an estimated $550,000 for the current year. The staff has initiated a delinquent ticket/warrant program in order to collect some of the past-due fines. Many of these violations are from offenses that date back two or more years.
Due to the economic slow down affecting the country, Murphy has not seen a measurable increase in sales tax revenue. In fact, some monthly collections are less than the same month one year ago. Some business locations have closed in the past six months such as, Mex-Mex Grill, Prime Source Mortgage and the Murphy Fitness Center. It is expected that the opening of Murphy Marketplace and Crossing will reverse the sales tax collection trend and funds could be available to assist in the further development of the city.
Mr. Berzina commends the present City Council for their supervision of city finances. He says that they are as involved in financial operations and decisions as any City Council he has worked with in his 35 years as a City Manager. “They took the immediate steps necessary to limit budget expenditures when they observed that revenue was down and certain unanticipated expenditures from lawsuits, legal fees and severance contract payments were up” said Mr. Berzina. He added, “The Mayor and City Council conducted budget review sessions and with the financial information provided by City Finance Director, Linda Truitt, the council reduced budget expenditures to match anticipated revenues.” He observed that the city staff worked well as a unit to identify where costs could be reduced and services still provided.
With regard to some of the projects that were on the shelf when he arrived but are now underway or completed, he cites the water and sewer lines recently installed on 544 near Dublin Road. “With the completion of this project, two areas were annexed to the city and development of the property may now occur” he stated. The beautification project on 544 from the east to the west city limits is underway and should be completed soon. It will compliment the Murphy Marketplace development with the improved landscaping. This project as well as the soon-to-be bid South Murphy Street Lighting project are being paid for from the 4B sales tax revenue.
Recently work started on the construction of Betsy Lane from Murphy Road to Cactus Path Drive. That project should be completed in four to six weeks. Finally, there are funds being made available from a recently passed Collin County Bond issue that will be used to complete Betsy Lane from Cactus Path Drive to McCreary Road. A section of McCreary Road from Betsy Lane to McWhirter will also be constructed with these bond funds. Both projects could possibly be completed in the next three years.
When asked if there are any programs or projects that he wished more could have been completed before he departed Mr. Berzina said, “I wish more could have been done to complete a new Murphy Road from 544 toward the north Murphy city limits.” He pointed out that this project has been planned for several years but there are still items needed to be completed to do the project. Years ago, Collin County set aside $6 million dollars to do a portion of the road. The project has grown from four to six lanes from the original design. The City of Murphy is required to resolve some remaining relocation payments to former residents along Murphy Road. This process should not hold up the construction of the road and Mr. Travis Henderson with the Texas Highway Department is working with the city to clear up this requirement.
To complete Murphy Road a considerable amount of additional dollars, perhaps as much as $10-12 million dollars, will be required. Funds may be available from construction dollars allocated to Collin County from the North Texas Toll Road Association and the State of Texas. Both Collin County and the Texas Highway Department are recommending that some of these funds be used to fully fund the North Murphy Road project. Mr. Berzina feels that, “If the revenue is made available to fund Murphy Road and the design review process is approved by the State Highway Department then the road project will begin.”
When asked if the city needed to fill the vacant position of Economic Development Director, Mr. Berzina said, “Definitely not.” The previous director resigned effective at the end of December and his job duties have been effectively handled by Julie Livingston who was the assistant to Randy Thomas, the previous director. Ms. Livingston came to Murphy with over five years experience with Trammel Crow, a development company that does real estate development on a world-wide basis. Mr. Berzina feels that the salary and benefits previously paid to Mr. Thomas amounted to approximately $115,000 per year and that most of that money could be used in the 4A/4B budgets for economic incentives to developers or used to make improvements to the city infrastructure. The new City Manager started March 31st and he brings considerable experience in economic development and it is likely he and Ms. Livingston can perform the work necessary to assure commercial development of the city. “There are only two or three large commercial sites left to be developed in Murphy and these sites are owned by developers. They have their own development teams and do not need the city’s help in locating businesses for their developments. What they require from the city is incentive money and assistance with their projects. By not having an Economic Development Director but promoting the assistant, more funds are available for actual incentives or projects such as parks and roads” said Mr. Berzina. He also added that the new City Manager may see this differently and that will be his decision just as it was his decision not to fill this position and work with the present staff.
In conclusion, Mr. Berzina reported that he feels the present City Council has done an excellent job in handling the policy determination for the city. They have directed their focus to improving the city, solving the problems they encountered and seeing to the financial integrity of the city. He feels that it is an excellent time for Mr. Fisher to begin his duties as City Manager. He remarked, “I have really enjoyed my time in Murphy and especially working with the excellent city staff and City Council. The City Council has a clear vision of the future direction of the city and is dedicated to implementing goals to secure that future. The city will be in good hands with Mr. Fisher and I expect to hear great things about the City of Murphy.”