City Manager Mike Matthes reflects on his first year

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 9:11 p.m. CDT; updated 12:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 3, 2012
City Manager Mike Matthes reflects on his first year on the job. Before moving to Columbia, Matthes was an assistant city manager and chief information officer in Des Moines, Iowa.

COLUMBIA — Mike Matthes drinks from a fire hose.

"People use the phrase, and that's a great description," Matthes said. The image describes for him the steep learning curve he's had to trace in his first year as Columbia's city manager.

Coffee talk

Columbia residents have the opportunity to register for 10-minute coffee sessions with City Manager Mike Matthes from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. every Friday. A few residents who took advantage of that opportunity over the past several months shared their impressions of the city manager. 

Adam Saunders, co-founder of Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

"I enjoyed meeting with him and discussing some ideas. I was very appreciative of him and his staff's time to share with the public and to reach out and try to generate some new ideas and hear feedback about issues in the neighborhood.

"We talked about neighborhood ideas and agricultural land preservation in and around Columbia. He was receptive to it. He understands more of his citizens and what they're thinking."

Ronald Broxton, FEMA infrastructure branch director

"I enjoyed my conversation with him. Matthes seemed to be a very intelligent person and involved in all he's doing with the city. He's very productive. We just discussed different options the city has as far as emergency management and grant programs and stuff like that. I think he's doing a good job."

Scott Denson, real estate agent

"My impression was he was a professional. He was friendly, civil and interested in what I had to say. I was trying to find out about the public transportation system running out of money. I guess I wanted to know why that is running out of money. He said that's a political decision.

"He couldn't give me all the answers. Nobody has all that information. Overall, I think he is doing a good job. That doesn't mean I agree with everything he does. It's a hard job, but overall I would say yes, he's doing a good job."

Barbara Petroski, tax consultant 

"I don't believe it was a productive time. My issue was handicap parking in downtown Columbia. I thought that Matthes listened, and he took the papers I gave him.

"He listened to me and that was nice. Did anything come of it? No."

Dan Braik, president of Braik Brothers Tree Care

"I was pleased to see that he would take the time to meet with people the way he did. I felt like he has a genuine interest in the city and what can be done to help the city.

"An employee, Rockey Meo, and I talked to him about the city's green waste recycling operation. We're trying to earn ourselves the opportunity to demonstrate how we can save the city some money."

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Tuesday marked Matthes' first anniversary in office since he came to Columbia from his previous position as an assistant city manger in Des Moines, Iowa. Since then, Matthes said, he's spent time getting to know the community and sounding out what its most pressing needs are. He's also been learning to interact with all facets of city government.

"I'm in that kind of schizophrenic position: I am not a political actor, but I do need to understand how that works. It's like being a sports fan. I don't play, but I'm an avid participant," he said. "For me it's been a year of intense learning."

Matthes hasn't been the only greenhorn in city government.  

"We're at a point where most of the (City Council) has two years in, I have one year in, we have five directors that are roughly my tenure or less, and we've probably turned over 20 percent of the workforce in the last two years. And we're going to turn over another 10 percent next year," he said.

The fact that so many of his partners in government also are relatively new to the job presents opportunities for change, Matthes said.

"It sort of helps me. We're all asking fundamental questions, which is great for the government. And if you can't answer them, then you have to change something." 

Matthes pointed to the recent adoption of Google Cloud technology by about 1,200 city employees. "That's an example where turnover can be useful, and we're not locked into the old way of doing things."

What are your impressions of City Manager Mike Matthes' first year on the job? You can share them by posting comments below or by sending your thoughts to

Matthes reviewed several key initiatives that marked his first year in office:

Columbia Regional Airport

The airport has been very much in the news over the past year. Matthes and Mayor Bob McDavid announced earlier this year that daily flights to and from Atlanta will begin June 7 through Delta Airlines. Delta also will provide two daily flights to and from Memphis. The airline currently provides three daily flights to and from Memphis every day except Saturday.

Meanwhile, city officials and others have been floating ideas for how to finance a multimillion-dollar renovation of the airport's terminal building. The main ideas revolve around an increase in the city's lodging tax. 

"I feel great about the airport," Matthes said. "It's in better shape than it's been in in years. ... At the airport, they're feeling the love."

Matthes said the new Atlanta flights will add significant travel opportunities for people flying out of Columbia Regional. "For as long as it takes to drive to St. Louis, you have access to 60 countries and 230 destinations around the world."

He also said he's committed to arranging flights to other major hubs, including Chicago. "That's everyone's first choice, and we're working to achieve that."

Part of that process, Matthes said, is putting in place a revenue guarantee to attract airlines. A revenue guarantee means local businesses and institutions would pony up money to guarantee that any airline that invests in Columbia would recoup at least a minimum amount for a specified time period.

Matthes said he's confident service demand at Columbia will be steady enough to carry the airlines.

"We're one of the few air markets in the country that make money for Delta," he said. "There's no question (future service expansions) will be successful, we just have to convince airlines of that."

Managing the city budget

Matthes released his proposed budget for fiscal 2012, his first as city manager, on July 29. Totaling $430 million and spanning 552 pages, it was the result of weeks of work with council members and department heads. 

In the budget's opening message, Matthes outlined four principles that guided the budget: promoting transparency, creating a customer-centered culture, ensuring high performance and accountability and living within the city's means.

"It's all about balancing and cutting back to meet revenue. ...We have 52 separate budgets that have rules about which other budgets you can fund with them and not. And every one has a different set of rules," he said. 

"It's always a challenge to keep focus, and the problem is they're all good ideas. The hardest part of the job is to differentiate between those things that are wildly important versus those that are just important."

The budget, approved by the council in September, included an hourly raise of 25 cents for all permanent city employees because there had been no raises during the past two years. It called for no tax increases.

The mostly hotly debated aspect of the budget was the call for higher fares for the city bus system and cuts in bus services. In the end, the council went with most of the fare increases, but it rejected most of the proposed cuts.  

The budget included a 58.5 percent increase in spending on street maintenance, creating a total maintenance fund of $1.58 million.

"We added $585,000 to the budget for road works," Matthes said, but he added that more investment is necessary. Current budget levels would allow the city to replace roads only every 50 years.

"But they only last about 30 years before they need a full replacement," Matthes said. "We've got to do more, and that's a goal long-term."

Strategic planning initiative

Matthes spoke of developing a strategic plan to help identify city priorities. The first step is conducting surveys to identify trends, measure what's happening in the community, determine the challenges that lie ahead and to figure how the city is growing and developing. 

"For example, we're not going to count on the federal government to bail us out of our problems. The earmarks are gone."

Concurrently, Matthes said, every department is evaluating its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, a process commonly called a SWOT analysis.

"We're taking a slightly different tack to reverse that process, which I like because it focuses externally first on opportunities and threats. We're starting with the community, and then worrying about ourselves."

Improving the Columbia Police Department

"Half of our patrol staff has less than five years experience," Matthes said.

He said training deficiencies among Columbia police officers highlighted by consultant Eric Anderson's review of the department were primarily a result of tough economic circumstances.

"The Police Department was not special; they trimmed the same places everywhere else, too." The department cut its training budget 10 percent in fiscal year 2011, and restored half that money in fiscal year 2012.

"But what I get from the report, is it's time to look at the whole curriculum. Some would argue the old method of training a cop to be a cop would produce a heavy-handed type training. And there's part of that to this job, but there's been a shift.

"(Police Chief Ken Burton) has brought in some folks that talk about unconditional respect as a place to start with. You have to be on your guard, but you can also do it from a place of respect. It's a sophisticated approach that's not easily learned. And it's not common sense.

"You can't common-sense your way into being a great cop. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of good mentoring."

Matthes said his standard for success in the Police Department is the level of positive public opinion it engenders. Anderson's review reported public satisfaction to be 69 percent. That's a high D.

Matthes is quick to note, however, that 92 percent of Columbia residents surveyed who have actually interacted with police give the department a satisfactory rating. That's a low A.

On the whole, Matthes said he believes most of the poor opinion of the department comes from a series of highly publicized police missteps, like the Rob Sanders affair and an infamous SWAT team raid in 2010.

"Those things stay in the mind of the whole community, never mind that only 30 percent of the community ever interacts with the Police Department," he said. "What we have to somehow do is point out that this 92 percent is more real than the 69."

A city that serves

Matthes, who has made customer service one of his primary themes, said he wants to highlight good deeds across city government through "an honest look at the work that gets done."

He told the story of a Public Works Department employee who recently helped a 90-year-old resident who called to ask how he could properly dispose of his television. Unable to move his "1975, 400-pound" TV to the curb, Matthes joked, several city employees volunteered to meet the man after work at his house. They hauled away the broken appliance.

It's that personal level of service that connects the community to city government, he said.

"This is just one of those stories. The only thing separating the people from the city is a job application.

"We are us."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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