Losing a city manager with the budget acumen and steady hand of T.C. Broadnax, who will soon return to Texas, brings an inevitable end to his short chapter in Tacoma. It also puts a coda on one of the city’s truly bold and brilliant hires.
Though he’d never occupied a No. 1 executive chair in another city, Broadnax was the right leader to extract Tacoma from the jaws of post-recession financial disaster when he arrived in 2012. He leaves the city on much more solid footing heading into 2017.
The City Council wasn’t blowing smoke earlier this year when all nine members praised Broadnax in a joint performance review, writing that his “expertise and management in budget literally saved our city.”
Dallas sealed a deal with its new city manager Dec. 14 after a unanimous City Council vote; his start date is Feb. 1. Officials reported being impressed with how Broadnax explored some of Dallas’ tougher neighborhoods on his own during a busy week of meetings and interviews.
He was similarly adventurous after coming to the South Sound nearly five years ago, fresh from his work as an assistant city manager in San Antonio. He told a TNT reporter he drove around Tacoma and got lost a few times — on purpose — before finding his way back to City Hall.
Now he knows the community well and Tacoma’s budget inside and out. And he’s sticking around long enough to set up the search process for his successor, a nice farewell gift for Mayor Marilyn Strickland and the City Council.
It’s a testament to his competence that Broadnax is able to go out on his own terms. This is no mean feat under a council-manager form of government. Demanding, sometimes fickle city councils can fire city managers at will.
Tacoma’s previous two city managers didn’t enjoy such smooth exits. Ray Corpuz (1989-2003) helped engineer the rebirth of downtown, but stepped down under pressure amid the wreckage of the Police Chief David Brame murder-suicide scandal. Eric Anderson (2005-11) was hired thanks to an outsized reputation and fired for not living up to it; under his watch, the city handed out reckless pay raises during the recession, relied on inflated sales tax projections and depleted $40 million in reserves.
Broadnax arrived the next year staring at a $60 million hole in the general fund. He enacted a castor-oil regimen of fee increases and personnel cuts both clear-eyed and brutal, sparing no departments including public safety, not counting on unions to make concessions, and earning the “ax” in his surname.
It worked so well that by last spring, he projected a manageable deficit of $6.7 million over the next two years. With the city on the upswing, Broadnax shepherded a spending plan this fall that’s sustainable but also responsive to community wishes. It will restore more than two dozen police and fire jobs and shield the library system from feared cuts.
Some might nitpick that he didn’t hold the job as long as his predecessors, but Tacoma is fortunate he stayed as long as he did. That Broadnax was the consensus choice of Dallas — one of only three U.S. council-manager cities with more than 1 million population — tells us all we need to know.
If anything, credit him for not bailing out last year when a half-baked proposal to switch to a strong-mayor form of government went to the Tacoma ballot, threatening his job security. The charter amendment’s crushing defeat, with more than 65 percent of voters saying no, can be viewed in no small measure as a referendum on Broadnax’s capable administration.
Let’s hope renewed talk of a strong-mayor system isn’t taken seriously, and that last year’s flirtation with a dumb idea doesn’t stain the city’s reputation in the tight circle of professional city managers. The odds of landing another executive of Broadnax’s caliber could diminish considerably.
As his career moves to the Texas Triangle whence he came, Broadnax no doubt appreciates Tacoma for giving him his first shot running a city government. Likewise, Tacoma owes him a debt of gratitude. And that sure beats the kind of debt it faced before he got here.