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Meet City Manager Ryan Wallace

Episode 10 features the City Manager from the City of Crescent, Oklahoma, Ryan Wallace. This episode takes us on a journey from Ryan's professional career in the private sector prior to relocating to Oklahoma to be closer to family. From there, Ryan got involved in Crescent's Fire Department about 10 years ago and from there has helped in various roles, including his current one as the City Manager.

We get into topics around managing the Oklahoma weather, embracing technology, working with council, ideas on brining in new businesses, and much more.

Show Script:

Ryan Wallace  
One of the things that I think that is similar happens to fit me very well as I like to start-ups. And in my mind, this small city feels a lot like a start-up. There really are, they're stretched for resources. And there are far more jobs to do, then there are people that are that are able to do them.

Brian Ondrako  
Welcome to another episode of the Gov Gab Podcast. I'm your host, Brian Ondrako. Thanks for being along in another episode, and excited to get back to the Midwest for Episode 10. Today, where we get the opportunity to speak with Ryan Wallace, who is the City Manager for the City of Crescent, Oklahoma. And Ryan has a really unique journey that he shares with us of you know, how he was an entrepreneur, ran some businesses out west and then ultimately came back home to be closer to his wife's family in Oklahoma. And from there, it kind of slowly started, he was at the fire department to begin and then kind of worked his way up in different roles, was helping with it and those type of things, and now has been the city manager for a short time, but a year and a half or so two years for the City of Crescent. So it was a really nice conversation, a lot of really deep insight into a small town and a lot of things that they go through. So I think that might appeal for a lot of the individuals out there listening. So I hope you guys really enjoyed this episode. Without further ado, let's jump into my chat today with Ryan Wallace. Ryan, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining today.

Ryan Wallace  
Thank you for having me.

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, I'm excited to chat with you know, you know, on our Gov Gab kind of podcasts here, as we talk with jurisdictions, both large and small, I know you got you know, your city manager of a smaller jurisdiction there in Oklahoma. So I was excited to kind of learn a little bit more about some of the things you guys are doing there some of the opportunities, as well as some of the challenges you guys are having. But I did want to start back if it's okay, because I'm always intrigued, especially folks that decide to get into public sector and kind of have those different roles. Can you share just a little bit about maybe your background? How did you did you always want to kind of as you were growing up as a kid and stuff want to be involved in the local government? Is that something that kind of spawned in college and later, okay, tell us about that the start off.

Ryan Wallace  
Now, actually, I really didn't have any interest in public sector at all. I've always been a private sector guy, and, you know, was intrigued by government. But I really didn't understand the difference between local government versus state and federal. And wasn't wasn't until later in life that I became interested in my community and, and involved with the community that I started to see. Perhaps there were places that I could, could assist and help out. So my journey started, I met my wife in college, she was an accounting major, I was a business major. And after college, we opened a business in California at the time, that was a an automotive manufacturing business. And we grew it from a garage startup to about 22 million a year in sales. And then we sold that and moved to Oklahoma about 10 years ago. And 10 years ago, we chose Oklahoma, we've lived in other places, but we chose Oklahoma to be close to her family. And we really were looking for a rural area place that we could buy, buy some land, and you know, having animals and it really changed from from California lifestyle that we lived previous. So Oklahoma was was a was a real heartland change for us, we changed, you know, quite a lot and really fell in love with the communities out here. We chose a town called Crescent, as it was close to my my in laws, but also it was an area that that we saw as being in the path of progress, we we could see that Oklahoma City was expanding north and we felt like this 74 corridor was going to be a good place in the future. And so that was that was a lot of the reason for that decision at the time.

Brian Ondrako  
What kind of what was the transition, maybe in your head to say, hey, I want to get more now now that I'm here in Oklahoma, I want to get more involved in the local government in the community. But it was one thing that happened or was just kind of the natural process of wanting to be involved more. 

Ryan Wallace  
No, I was tricked is the real answer that I was I was talking into joining the local fire department. So a lot of the neighbors that I had saw me out doing, you know, things outdoors and doing projects and completing those projects and thought that, that I would be a good hand on the fire department. So one of my neighbors made a joke that, don't worry, it's only it's only one Thursday evening, a month and Saturday in January every year. That's that's all the time it'll take and of course, it couldn't be farther from the truth, volunteer fire ended up being a very time consuming task just with you know, training and then then, you know, the amount of time that that it requires. That was about 10 years ago. And from that I became more involved with with city government. I started it business about the same time, I tend to be a serial entrepreneur. So I found myself board and decided that there were quite a lot of opportunities in this area for it work. And then started to realize that there were some real specific needs in transportation logistics for oil and gas. And that was really one of the first projects that I started out here. And that turned into doing some work for the city government. And that was really how I was introduced to city government. And, you know, there were there were several opportunities that I had to onboard here. But really the the most significant was just doing it work and starting to watch the mechanism behind the scene.

Brian Ondrako  
So how did ultimately the transition to city manager happen?

Ryan Wallace  
Well, that was that was an interesting transition. And I was asked several times throughout the last, you know, seven or eight years. And I guess I ran out of excuses as the real answer. But really, I started out here, as it as I said, as a contractor. And then I was asked to do PIO, public information officer. I move pretty quickly from that to Assistant City Manager. And then we had an outgoing City Manager who recommended me for interim, which I agreed to do and help help to replace that position. And shortly after the city council asked if I would just take the take the position permanently. And so I agreed to and I've been in been in the role of City Manager for about 14, 15 months now.

Brian Ondrako  
What would you say is because, you know, it's interesting, some other City Managers I've talked with, like this is like as like a career for them, right? They've been doing it for 20, 25 years, they're kind of in the realm kind of new to the process. They're going assistant, city manager and city manager, what do you think is probably the biggest, maybe unspoken challenge, you found out once taking a position that maybe you didn't realize coming into it?

Ryan Wallace  
Well, certainly for me as being a public sector guy and moving into into a rather a private sector guy moving into public sector, the the, the rules are really all different. And, you know, starting just at the top of the accounting rules that private sector versus public sector, or just just vastly different. There. Really, I mean, I think that there's probably, there's probably very few similarities and all in all reality, one of the things that I think that is similar, happens to fit me very well as I like to start-ups. And in my mind, this small city feels a lot like a start-up, there really are, they're stretched for resources, and there are far more jobs to do, there are people that are that are able to do them. And so as, as a City Manager in this particular city, I found that I end up wearing a lot of hats. And I like that I like the challenge of having a lot of different jobs to do and and find that that's fits my personality pretty well.

Brian Ondrako
So what are some of the things and especially with the small community, and you guys are I don't know the exact mileage and do the math, but outside of Oklahoma City, right? And you said with the 74 corridor, or come in there? What are some things you guys are trying to do too? I mean, is there a push to to help increase the population bring a new business? Or is it is it kind of, hey, we're happy with the size we are and what we're doing as a community? What are some of those conversations you guys are having with Council and maybe to progress the city.

Ryan Wallace  
So the interesting thing, Crescent has had a zero growth or no growth mentality for many years. And, and I think that there are still a lot of folks in this in the city that would like to see it stay like it was but I think that there's a disconnect about, about what the what the city has been traditionally, and the work that people did to make it an effect, bro. Really, there's only two, there's only two directions, there's there's either growth or decline, there's there's really no homeostasis and keeping, you know, keeping any entity, the same size, you have to actively grow just to maintain. And if cities try to try to, you know, have no growth there, really, they really tend to decline. And that's really where I found the city 10 years ago, when we moved here. There were a lot of things that were cute about the town that we saw a lot opportunities, but particularly in the main street area, there were a lot of dilapidated buildings and I I really saw a lot of opportunity for for growth and rehabilitation. And then over the next decade, we saw the city fall further into the decline in disrepair. So that's maybe one of the driving factors, one of the things that I thought that I could help with, one of the things that I was shocked to learn is Oklahoma is the only state and in the United States that doesn't funnel property taxes to cities for the purpose of maintenance. That's a unique Oklahoma thing. And it actually works is very difficult for bedroom communities like Crescent, because a lot of the folks, you know, that own property here actually work outside the area, and they do a lot of shopping in those areas. So for communities like Crescent, with without a real vibrant retail environment, the the resources to maintain the city are really limited. So one of the big challenges that we see here in Crescent, and one of the things that that we're that we're that we acknowledge and are working towards is growth, and that that retail, because we're such a small city and and we're effectively one square mile, we don't really have a lot of area to bring in new retail. So that's been a discussion that we've had with Council is annexing more property into the into the town so that we can develop some retail areas. We have a 74 Highway is basically our main town, main road through the middle of town. And there are some really gorgeous historic buildings along that but most of those are many of those are dilapidated, and then vacant, I would say that there's about a 50% vacancy in that area. And some of the ones that have businesses in them or have are occupied or are occupied in a in a way that that generates revenue for the city that are either occupied by, you know, as office space, whether they're occupied by, you know, by there's a effectively a personal museum and one of the one of the prime buildings downtown. So really, for us to rehabilitate that downtown area, we need to start generating revenue somewhere else. And I think probably the way that we're going to have to do that is is by getting by opening up some new retail areas where we can bring in some stores, maybe anchor stores and and some some fast food.

Brian Ondrako  
Is that something? Are you guys? And again, I'm a complete novice with this. So the left, let me let me kind of go on this tangent with this question. See, if I follow? Do you go on actively pursue like, are you guys, you know, putting out there to developers or, you know, other folks to say, Hey, you know, we're kind of open for business, if you will, we have some areas here some of the opportunity, or our folks come in, you know, and looking there a lot and just seeing if it's a fit or not, how does that all work to bring in these new things businesses?

Ryan Wallace  
I think that's that's true in both cases, but yes, absolutely, we are looking for opportunities looking for stores that would would consider, you know, locating here. But also, we have some challenges that we know we have to overcome for stores that have showed interest and and maybe have passed on town or been unable to locate here, for one reason or another and one of those big challenges in our town happens to be the the sewer system, we actually have a sewer system that stops about halfway, you know, geographically about halfway through our town, it covers the North half of the town, but the south half of the town is is actually not covered. So you know, we have a loves gas gas station, for example, they had to install their own Lyft station to be able to connect to our gravity sewer and have sewer services. Some of the other some of the other businesses along that southern part of our city actually have septic systems and private lift stations. So we know that to grow, we're actually going to need to expand add another lift station to our city and add more sewer resources to really cover, you know, businesses in that area. And that's something that we know, will be a factor in the future.

Brian Ondrako  
So what do you guys find that I guess if you're not getting property taxes, you said with the uniqueness of Oklahoma? Where do you guys get much was a lot of the budget come in from?

Ryan Wallace  
Well, in in the government sector, we have a 3% sales tax within within the city. So there, you know, effectively, crescents budget is a million dollars in government and a million dollars and it's Public Works in the government section, you know, that is is primarily funded by the sales tax revenue, the majority of that goes to, to city services largest being our police department. And then the Public Works Department operates by selling by selling water and sewer services to residents within our within our geographic footprint. And that, that generates about a million dollars a year and effectively is is not really a it doesn't operate at a at a much of a profit, we end up breaking even, we've had to do a lot of very large infrastructure projects. Over the last few years, the largest been a water line replacement project that was partially grant grant funded and partially funded by a USDA loan and the debt service on that USDA loan has basically consumed any profit that the public works department would have. So one of our challenges now is trying to find ways to grow and, and even maintain city services without incurring any new debt. So a lot of our push over the last year has been grant resources. We apply for five grants here in the last 14 months. And we've received approval on three of those. One of the largest is an OWRB reap grant that we're using to replace all of the water meters in town. And the water meter project is taking some some antiquated and in dilapidated water meters and replacing those with new state of the art ultrasonic water meters that have a Mr. So right now we spend approximately three days per month with three staff members walking around town, reading water meters. And we are anticipating that the AMR project will take that, you know, 24 man hours worth of labor and replace it with a 15 minute drive around town. So that's one of the areas that we're that we are looking to improve our our efficiency quite a lot. And also the accuracy of our billing, we have found that the antiquated meters are not very accurate. They don't build for very low flow usage, if you had a running toilet or something, for example, they actually may not register, that that water consumption. And also we've found that they tend to be somewhat sticky, they'll they will walk up. And we don't know. And until the next billing cycle, when we see that the flow for the usage doesn't match what it has historically, the new meters actually will are a lot more accurate. And they also have provisions to alert people when there's leakage. If it detects a low flow, that doesn't stop it actually flags the account. And we're able to to alert residents that they might have, you know, some water waste.

Brian Ondrako  
And that's always trying to, you know, increase the efficiency of the staff. But also Yeah, if you give some insight there, you actually might recoup some dollars, you guys that may be lost over the years probably. Right. In terms of the the water?

Ryan Wallace  
Absolutely, there's I think that there's a, you know, I mentioned the Public Works is, you know, hamstrung right now. We feel like this is definitely a place that we will probably free up some resources. And we'll probably also see some additional cash flow in terms of the water rates are going up, but we're probably going to see more billing.

Brian Ondrako  
I was curious, you mentioned earlier that you were a lot of hats, obviously, with the trim staff and what you guys are doing, is there anything, what would we be surprised with something you got to do throughout the day, because you think city manager and you kind of have a certain perception of what that role is? And the things you gotta do? Is there something where you get your hands dirty, where people would be surprised that you have to do?

Ryan Wallace  
Well, I think probably probably one of the surprises would be that I still do all the IT support for the city. So when I was when I was hired, I actually have a split role. So I'm actually the City Manager, but I'm also still the IT Director. So probably one third of my time is split between IT support and then building out our IT system. And the other two thirds is is city management.

Brian Ondrako  
Or, so, in terms of structuring your day that obviously if you're getting pulled in a few different directions, right? What is there anything and maybe it's you learned from your you know, your business days, right in the private sector, any like habits you have, or routines that are important for you to kind of keep you level headed throughout the day, anything you do?

Ryan Wallace  
Absolutely. One of the things is that I try to band my day. So I build certain projects into certain parts of the day. And one of the biggest problems I have is interruption of course, like anybody. So what I've built is some carve outs in my day where I'm just not not available. And then I also tend to do some unhealthy things. For example, I work at light at night a lot. So I have a tendency, and this is, you know, this is, this is a private sector thing. I have a tendency to, to take home a lot of work. And I do a lot of the projects that, you know, probably, you know, are really, really realistically Crescent projects during family time in the evenings.

Brian Ondrako  
And one of the things I was asked with that, and obviously, you know, with this new role, being in the City Manager last 15 months or so. How was it? I've heard some mixed reviews of how people deal with, you know, the council and Mayor. Right, that's a different obviously animal. Right. Getting into that, how have you dealt with that? How is that that relationship there? Is there anything you've done to kind of make that relationships? solid, really to improve the town?

Ryan Wallace  
You know, that's a that's an interesting question. I think we are blessed with with probably the exception to virtually every rule that I've heard in terms of, you know, Council Manager form of government, we have a wonderful, wonderful Council and a really, really great Mayor. In fact, I honestly don't think I would have taken this role if if I had a council like a lot of the council's that I that I hear about, you know, ones that are there constantly in turmoil and infighting. Our council tends to be pretty, pretty common sense. They understand our limitations, they understand the challenges that we have as a small town. And really, they're they're very unified. And it is it's a really family feel here. And I think that that has been a real blessing. Also, we've been pretty proactive on a lot of the projects that we've taken on this year. And a lot of folks, I think understand some of the challenges we're facing, in like the direction we're going. So I think in this last year, maybe the the phone calls that Council has had have have been have been pretty positive, you know, the interaction that the council has had from the public, a lot of what I hear is, is that folks are pretty happy with the direction of things. And I think that's made things easier for the council. And I think as a result of that they've they've embraced a lot of the ideas and things that are brought to the table. I haven't really seen a lot of a lot of infighting or or really any difficulty with counsel. I don't know that that will always be the case. I certainly hope that it is because it's been a really productive year. We've gotten a lot of stuff done. And I think that that, that I hope that it always stays that way.

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, that's, that's pretty awesome that you have that opportunity there. And yeah, I mean, I'm sure there's differences. But yeah, if you can kind of meet in the middle, a lot of stuff and kind of progressing forward, it's only better for everyone. So that's pretty cool. 

Ryan Wallace  
That's actually been like a really a tenant of my whole platform here. As a City Manager, I've just tried to say, Hey, we're going to get a lot more done if we can work together. And I feel like we're better together. That's sort of a scene that I use a lot. And it's heartfelt. I feel like when we work together, not, you know, not pushing special interests, but just the general good and welfare of Crescent, we're going to get a lot more done. And we're going to be a lot happier. And I think that folks have embraced that idea. I've seen a lot of cooperation in areas that, you know, folks haven't really been very quiet in the past. They seem to be getting along really well right now. It might just be a honeymoon period. But I hope it stays this way forever.

Brian Ondrako  
One of the things I was really curious about especially with the state, because, again, I don't live there and you only hear stuff on the news. How do you get and you've been there 10 years now? How do you get ahead of the weather? I know there's a lot of there's a lot of uncertainty throughout the year like is do you guys? Is there anything you can plan for or anything you guys do as a city do? I don't know? It makes everyone safer? I don't know I'm just more curious than ever just where you guys are located.

Ryan Wallace  
Sure. Now there's there's a tremendous amount of planning that goes into, you know, weather preparedness here. So as a as a native Californian, weather is just absolutely no factor. I mean, I have never really dealt with weather. A lot of people talk about earthquakes. And you know, there are there are some programs for earthquake preparedness in California. But weather is is not really something to fear necessarily. My moved to Oklahoma was was definitely eye opening. It's the weather is is is very unpredictable here. And can be of course, just very severe. So one of the first ways that I was introduced to weather preparedness is through the fire department, our local fire department does a lot of there's a lot of work to do to prepare storm watch, you know, storm shelter registration, that was one of the one of the projects that I started early on was actually developing a database and collecting storm shelter data so that folks could could register storm shelters and the fire department would be able to find them. Not just with visual references or an address but actually with GPS coordinates. So the fire department does a lot police department does, does an awful lot of preparedness. The Police Chief is also our emergency manager here. And I know that that you know virtually all the firemen have been through the storm spotter school and I think most of the policemen as well. The city has has taken has taken a lot of steps to educate the public. But one of the things that we have not had in the past is is a good public shelter. And one of the projects that's that's ongoing right now is there's a FEMA project in place right now to build a FEMA shelter at the school, Crescent Public Schools. And so that's one of the major steps that we're taking to really prepare our community for for a tornado or some other disaster. But I'll tell you this last year has been really eye opening this last storm shell storm season last couple of months have have really have really upset a lot of the city services. One of the things that we've experienced here this last year, within the last couple of months is lightning storms that have disabled a good deal of our of our city infrastructure. We took a lightning strike to the city hall building, which basically burned out nearly every computer in the building, including our status system. The scalar system is the computerized system that controls our water and sewer systems. And reports trouble with those that system is has been completely damaged, damaged beyond repair at this point. And then we also saw some lightning strikes out on some of the remote locations throughout our city of our gathering wells and water towers that have that have done damage to pumps and all kinds of things. Essentially, our city is unfolding manual control. Right now we're having to manually control and we we put in a couple of temporary type systems, but essentially manually control all of our water pumps in high high lift pumps that pump the water up to the towers. And in our sewer system. All those systems are having to be controlled by by men on overtime right now. And we have a contractor that's working very hard to build a new system. But it's a it's a very large project, we're probably still another 60 days away from full implementation.

Brian Ondrako  
Wow, that's pretty. That's pretty insane. Yeah, how do you so how do you? I don't even know you can manually do I guess you can but so how does how does that even Can you explain I'm just more again, my curiosity is piqued like how do you manually?

Ryan Wallace  
Yeah, well, in a city like this really be the water pressure is generated by water and a standpipe or a elevated tower. And we have one of each of the. So really, if the water level in that tower varies a little bit, you'll see some small variation in in the in the water pressure at your faucet. But essentially, we have the ability to turn on the pump, which which takes water from our treatment area, our clear well, and pumps it up to that that tower. So essentially how how water is produced in a city like ours is is we use domestic water wells that are located outside of town about three four miles out of town. In those domestic water wells produce water, untreated water which is sent to a clear well a treatment plant and the treatment plant chlorinate the water and stores it through for for a period of time until high lift pumps, pump that water up to the tower. And then it's distributed through our distribution network throughout town. So essentially, it's a function of watching tower levels, Clearwell levels and turning pumps on and all of those locations at the right time to keep to keep the water at the right level. And then the chlorination system is automatic, it's it's based on on the volume of water passing through a system. So the more water that flows, the more chlorine flows and in proportion to that. So essentially, that's the system, it's a pretty simple system. Thankfully, we're not using groundwater or anything like that, if we were using groundwater, we had a, you know, a water treatment plant, it would be a much harder thing to do. But because we're using domestic wells and a clear well to treat, it's actually a fairly simple system. And because of that we're, you know, it's not too difficult to run, it just takes a lot of labor, it takes a lot of time. It's it's a lot of driving around. All those different locations. Every one of those locations that I mentioned, is geographically separated. The domestic water wells again are, you know, the first ones about five miles out of town, and you have to actually physically drive there to turn the pump on and off.

Brian Ondrako  
Did you ever think 10 years ago you would be talking about domestic wells and organization?

Ryan Wallace  
My background is manufacturing and systems are are are fun for me. I mean, that's interesting for me. Yeah. But I, you know, I come from automotive manufacturing and defense, you know, manufacturing things for for life support system was for defense. So domestic water wells were never really in my in my purview. never really thought about that.

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, well, seems like you're doing some great things, obviously, in the city and trying to progress it. But let's end on this. I'm curious, maybe it's a kind of leave open forum here. And any thoughts you have or advice, you know, if you're talking to other cities, maybe think maybe it's other smaller communities, things that you've learned there that could be helpful for them. Maybe it's one tip or something that maybe help them progress, anything you've learned in your time there, either, you know, from your role all the way from the fire department all the way up to what you're doing today. Anything in particular, you'd share something you've learned along the years?

Ryan Wallace  
Yeah, absolutely. The biggest tip that I have, and the thing that we have done, we haven't really talked about much today, but but probably one of the biggest, biggest factors and moving our fire department forward. And also the city forward is embracing technology and data. One of the things that we have done in both of those, both of those venues, both the fire department and in the city is we have developed databases and done a lot of work to to modernize the city. Many of the cities like Crescent are are still dealing with, you know, with, with with technology, that's probably 30, 40 years out of date. And over the last decade, we've we've really turned that around. Now the city is developing applications to to streamline You know, a lot of our processes, we have a code enforcement database that we've rolled out recently that is reduced the workflow dramatically. We touched briefly on the EMR system and the reduction workload, we're anticipating when that's rolled out another few months, we've seen similar improvements. So the fire department with with the storm shelter registration database, we have databases that that we've developed for our water system now that that track and report back to the DEQ is our Department of Environmental Quality. There's a monthly report that we have done by hand for many years, that's all electronic nowadays, guys in their, in their, with their mobile phones are collecting that data now. And that data flows into a report that's generated automatically. There's been a lot of projects that we've done like that, one of them have happened in internally in the city, but also with with good partnerships. And I think that, that by really embracing that technology and streamlining operations, we've seen some really dramatic differences in in our town and, and also the way we communicate with our customers. We, in the past have have not had a really well documented system here at the city. And we're trying to change that we're trying to improve the documentation of of our, of our internal infrastructure and projects, but also the way we communicate with customers both and you know, our product processes and, and certifications of different things and in the way that we collect information from our customers. embracing technology has been a major, major difference for us.

Brian Ondrako  
And that's really great. Well, I appreciate you sharing that run. I appreciate you sharing the stories just kind of your journey a little bit definitely unique, which is really cool to kind of see where you've come from and how you guys are trying to progress the city there. So thank you so much for taking some time out and sharing that with us.

Ryan Wallace  
Thank you, Brian. Appreciate the opportunity.

Brian Ondrako  
Well, hope you all enjoyed that interview with Ryan Wallace, City Manager of Crescent, Oklahoma. It just one quick ask before you run along on your day. If you don't mind, head over to iTunes, our Operate Intelligently Podcast, and leave us a quick review. Give us a rating. Let us know how we're doing on this podcast. And we certainly appreciate it. It's the only way we can make this better and better each and every episode. Look forward to having you guys in the next one. Hope you guys have a great week and we'll talk to you soon. Take care.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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