Johnson has addressed issues ranging from declining revenues to rebuilding — both a new City Hall in Garden City, Ga., and an array of local infrastructure in Sadr City, Iraq, following its destruction during the invasion of Iraq.
The current city manager for the suburban Savannah community of Garden City, Johnson was appointed there in February 2007 in his first professional role in local government.
Garden City Councilwoman Judy Shuman served on the council that hired Johnson. Although he was new to the profession, “he just reeked of enthusiasm and energy and knowledge,” she said. “He just seemed really smart and very professional.”
The Anniston City Council voted Wednesday to offer him the position after he spent the morning in the Model City meeting the council, city staff and community. Council members cited his dynamic personality and the impression he made as a risk-taker and game-changer.
Before Johnson takes the position, he said Wednesday, he has to bring his wife to town to get a feel for the community. He also needs to see the contract the city offers him; the salary range advertised by the city for a new city manager is $90,000-$150,000. Johnson’s current salary in Garden City is $115,000.
Shuman said city officials were already talking about relocating Garden City’s City Hall, so Johnson’s experience rebuilding war-torn areas outside Baghdad seemed applicable. Johnson served in both the Navy and Army before completing his master’s degree in public administration and seeking a career in local government.
“All the stuff that he was talking about with us in that, made us feel like he could do that kind of stuff,” she said.
It was a project Johnson began to tackle within months of taking over as city manager. The former City Hall sat on property which overlooked the Savannah River. The Port of Savannah — the fastest-growing port in the United States, according to Johnson — extends upriver from Savannah into Garden City. He said port officials were eager to have the property in hand, so the city agreed to vacate the property within two years to get a better price for it. Within a year, he said, the city had to figure out whether to just build a new city hall or to also build a new town center around it, find a proper site, assemble 50 acres of property from various owners across town and clean up a brownfield site. “I was coming in at 4 a.m. to get stuff done,” he said.
The city moved into the new City Hall complex in August 2009, about two-and-a-half years after Johnson joined Garden City.
“It’s one we can really be proud of,” Shuman said. “He was behind all that, keeping it going.”
Bessie Kicklighter, another Garden City councilwoman, said the city kind of overbuilt the new facilities, especially considering the economy bottomed out shortly thereafter. Despite the challenges, she said, the facility is beautiful and the city is very proud of it.
Now Johnson and the City Council are facing cuts to the city’s sales tax revenue — nearly $1 million to its $7.7 million general fund budget. Sales tax is distributed by the county with population as a key factor, and recent U.S. Census figures have hurt the city’s share.
Johnson said the 2010 count of 8,778 — down from 11,289 in 2000 — missed a number of residences.
“We had a large section of the city that didn’t get counted,” he said.
So using aerial imagery, utility bills and other information, Johnson compiled a challenge to the results that impressed his council. He said census officials acknowledged the mistake but couldn’t fix it due to federal law.
“We’ll catch you on the flip side,” was the basic response, Johnson said.
The economy and revenue declines have left the City Council debating whether to levy the first property tax in Garden City, one of only two local governments in the county without it. The council has rejected two property taxes proposed by Johnson in the past two years.
Johnson said it would be next year before the City Council can address the property tax question again. But in the past few years, he said, he’s worked to diversify the city’s revenue streams in the absence of property tax. In addition to the city’s share of the sales tax, he said, the city has begun charging fees for certain services, such as fire protection and use of stormwater drains, and that’s helped make certain funds solvent.
Johnson also cited efforts to improve staff morale and cohesiveness as well as have departments accredited as major accomplishments during his tenure in Garden City.
Shuman said Johnson is adept at offering the City Council multiple solutions to issues that come before it and always does what the council communicates to him.
Kicklighter said Johnson would likely serve as a great city manager in an even larger city.
“He’s got a lot of big ideas, and they’re great,” Kicklighter said. “Considering the challenges he’s had, he’s done a good job.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.