Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Saturday, March 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Outgoing City Manager Mark Calhoun has spent the past 29 years working for the city of Henderson. But come Tuesday, the Henderson City Council will accept his retirement and discuss how it will replace him.
Calhoun’s retirement, which is effective May 17, was announced last month, just after the council approved a settlement from a 2010 incident in which a Henderson Police officer assaulted a man during a traffic stop while he was in diabetic shock.
News of the incident caught most council members off-guard until they were asked to vote on the settlement, they said. The ensuing uproar from the public and council members forced Calhoun to ask Police Chief Jutta Chambers to step down, according to sources.
Despite the controversy, Calhoun said it’s not the reason why he’s retiring.
“Timing is everything and it has been lousy timing,” said Calhoun. “I wasn’t going to make the announcement until the middle of March.”
He declined further comment on the matter.
To add to the “lousy timing,” Calhoun leaves a $13 million budget gap awaiting his successor. A fifth round of employee buyouts was just approved in an effort to cut costs.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the council is expected to discuss the possible appointment of Jacob Snow, currently general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, to replace Calhoun. Snow has been at the RTC since 1999 and is responsible for its $500 million budget and a staff of 2,300.
Calhoun said it’s time for someone else to take on the task of managing Henderson.
“I don’t know what else I can do,” Calhoun said. “There are other people out there that have good ideas too, that can come in and take us to the next step.”
Calhoun started his tenure with the city in 1983, when he moved to the valley from the Midwest to become the city engineer. Back then, he said, Henderson had a population of some 31,000 people and was struggling to shed its image as a “Hooterville,” the “stepchild” city filled with factory workers. Henderson is now home to more than 268,000 residents; any image of the backwoods, folksy Hooterville portrayed in a 1960s television show is long gone.
“Over the last 29 years that I’ve been here, it has managed to do that,” said Calhoun. “A lot of dedicated people got the image to change.”
After serving as public works director and assistant city manager, he was picked in 2009 as acting city manager after the council fired then-City Manager Mary Kay Peck.
By that time, the city had offered its first employee buyout program and Calhoun was considering leaving. But he needed to work another year to retire without a penalty and the city was looking to fill the city manager position. Calhoun signed a three-year contract, agreeing to manage the city for $225,000 a year.
His contract entitles him to roughly $251,000 in severance to make up for the buyout he could have taken, along with any accumulated sick leave and vacation time.
When Calhoun was tasked with cutting the city’s budget beginning in 2009, he said he made tough decisions.
“I took away the 401k match, I took away the car allowances… those were easy things to do,” said Calhoun. “That saved us maybe $1-2 million a year.”
He also trimmed expenses by asking department heads to cut 10 percent of their budgets across the board.
“At that time was a little traumatic, but we had to do it,” Calhoun recalled. “That started us down the road.”
As the economy worsened, the city offered more employee buyouts.
“Whatever we did, we wanted to keep as many people working as possible,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t want to have layoffs.”
City officials say 244 employees have taken buyouts and 73 percent of the vacancies created by those lost positions have remained unfilled or taken away all together. In 2009 the city employed 1,280 people in nonpublic safety areas. The number now is down to 1,060. A fifth round of buyouts will cut nearly 100 more city positions by the time the buyouts end later this year.
“Now, we’re getting to the point where if we have more cuts, the city council may have to look at reducing some services,” said Calhoun. “We’ve asked the employees to do more with less and they’ve been doing that but things are starting to fall through the cracks.”
Still, Calhoun is optimistic about the city’s position and believes its direction is improving.
“We hope we’ve bottomed out,” Calhoun said. “There are a number of projects that have a great potential of moving forward.”
He points to signs of an economic recovery that bode well for Henderson.
One of the projects he thinks will bring jobs to Henderson is the recently announced $156 million expansion of St. Rose Dominican Hospitals’ Siena campus.
“It’s going to help as far as showing we’re still a viable community,” said Calhoun.
Union Village, a planned $1.5 billion, privately financed integrated hospital and retail campus, and the Henderson Sports Complex, a proposed stadium big enough to hold professional baseball and/or soccer games, are two other major developments Calhoun believes will bring jobs and other businesses to Henderson.
The city has put nearly $8 million of a promised $25 million in public funding into the Henderson Space and Science Center project, which is envisioned as a state-of-the-art museum and learning center. But last month Calhoun wrote a letter to council members urging them to suspend further funding of the center, in the best interest of the city.
“To give them the money right now, in my opinion, would be fruitless,” Calhoun said. “The space and science center needs to go out and try to get donations. The $17.2 million is not going to build anything.”
For a career that spans three decades, Calhoun said his biggest accomplishment was working as a team with city employees to transform Henderson’s image to one of a premier community and the second-largest city in Nevada.
“We’ve had some great developments and master plans that are looked at nationwide,” said Calhoun. “People are now contacting the city for advice and information and leadership.”
The city, he said, will do just fine without him.
“The way we’ve put things into place and our policies on finances, we should be able to weather the storm.”