Inside Track: Young finds wrestling with city government enjoyable
Michael Young, 20-year city manager of Rockford, also heads the Michigan Local Government Management Association.
Michael Young must have been cut out for city management.
At age 22, he was an intern under Eric DeLong, who was then village manager in Spring Lake. By age 28, he was the city manager of Rockford.
That was 20 years ago — and he’s still there today.
In January, Young was selected by his peers to be the 2015 president of the Michigan Local Government Management Association, founded in 1927 as an affiliate of the Michigan Municipal League. MLGMA is the key professional association for local government managers and their assistants.
Michigan, according to Young, is well known as a city manager state, and most of those managers are members of MLGMA. In a few Michigan cities — Detroit, for example — the mayor is elected to work as the full-time CEO of municipal government administration. Most other cities, including Grand Rapids, Walker and Wyoming, have a city manager form of government. The manager is hired by the city council to carry out the decisions of the elected body.
When Young applied for the top job in Rockford, there were scores of other applicants, many with years of experience in city management. Despite his youth, he was known in West Michigan municipal government, being the assistant city manager of Greenville at the time and an administrative assistant in Spring Lake for three years before that.
Young was born in Chicago; the family moved to Grand Haven when he was 6. After high school, he earned a Bachelor of Science in public administration with an emphasis on urban planning and management at Grand Valley State University, and a few years later returned for a master’s degree in public administration.
Young was an accomplished wrestler in high school and at GVSU. Later he was the head wrestling coach at GVSU for a year and assistant coach at Grand Haven High School. He is now an assistant wrestling coach at Rockford and a Michigan High School Athletic Association wrestling referee at the state finals each year.
It’s a difficult sport, he said: just two opponents, one-on-one, and “nobody to help you. You rise and fall on your own abilities.”
MICHAEL F. YOUNG
The sport teaches perseverance and determination, plus learning how to win and lose gracefully, he said. It also provides experience in handling setbacks in life.
It may have helped prepare him for his career because city managers sometimes find themselves in very difficult situations. The Great Recession is a good case in point: Virtually all local governments in Michigan were pinned (to use a wrestling term) to some extent by the crippling drop in tax revenues when property values plummeted.
“We made a lot of adjustments,” said Young. “We cut our city staff by just over 25 percent. And that was hard because there is a high expectation of municipal services here in Rockford.”
A major solution was the consolidation of police and fire departments into a public safety department. The officers were cross-trained to be police and firefighters as well as medical first responders. There was another twist: Rockford was the first city in Michigan to train its Department of Public Works employees to be on-call firefighters and medical first responders.
“We’ve got 22 fully trained city employees who can respond to emergencies. That is as much as some communities much larger than us,” he said.
The public safety consolidation “worked for us. I’m not saying it would work in every community,” said Young.
The consolidation started in 2012 and was fully implemented in 2014. Young said it has saved the city an estimated $300,000 a year, in addition to reduced expenditures through staff cuts and an aggressive program to seek grants for city purposes. Young is also an experienced grant writer and writes many for Rockford.
Today the Rockford city budget is still lower than it was prior to the recession, but it was not until 2014 that property values finally began returning to what they once were.
“We are still below 2007 levels of taxable valuation, so we’ve got a long ways to go,” he said, but the results from last year’s property sales are a “nice increase” in valuation. That estimated increase has been pegged at about $10 million, but Young notes Rockford property lost a total of about $40 million in value since the recession began.
“So we made up about a quarter of that. We have a lot of building going on right now. It’s good to see that. I think in about three years we will be back up to the 2007 level.”
The MLGMA is not a lobbying group but rather a mutual support association. Young said members get to know each other and learn who they can call when faced with a municipal management challenge new to them, such as drafting a new type of ordinance.
“We lean on each other and provide support to each other,” he explained.
One of the biggest challenges Young has faced was serving as chairman of the North Kent Sewer Authority since its inception in 1997. Rockford had been connected to the Grand Rapids wastewater treatment system but a “messy contract negotiation” when Rockford’s contract expired landed the parties in federal court. Then the city of Rockford decided to join forces with surrounding townships that needed wastewater treatment service — Cannon, Courtland, Plainfield and Alpine — and build a treatment plant serving a 140-square-mile area.
“We were laughed at when we proposed that. It was an enormous amount of work,” he said. “We created an organization from scratch that had no employees, no money, nothing. We formed the authority, entered into contracts with each other. … We created an organization from the ground up and built a $52 million treatment plant. It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do,” said Young. The plant went online in 2008.
When he was elected president of the MLGMA, Young said one of his goals is to better inform the public about the role of municipal managers.
“I’m concerned with the high turnover and lack of new municipal managers in Michigan,” Young said. “Why aren’t more college graduates going into community management? Let’s face it, if all you read about is a community manager being fired or in trouble, why would you want to go into that field?”
Young hopes the association can become more of a resource for struggling local governments and managers.
“There seems to be a blurring of the role of an elected council in a community and the role of the manager. The council is supposed to set policy and the manager is to carry out that policy, but often you’ll see council members taking on the job of the manager and managers trying to set policy. That relationship seems to be breaking down, and MLGMA, as an organization, can help improve these relationships,” he said.
Part of it is simply that city hall “is the government that is closest to the people,” noted Young. A citizen who goes into the town hall or city hall or county government building with a concern or request is likely to make more progress than going to the state or federal government.
The No. 1 job of local government is to keep people safe, said Young, whether it’s fighting fires, managing the water system or keeping the roads in good condition.
“I’m really idealistic about this profession — and it will sound corny, but we truly help people,” he said. “I feel so part of this community — I love this town. It’s more than a job to me.”