Lakeland’s latest city manager may be new on the job, but he brings years of experience and credentials with him, along with affection for the city and and a history of working closely with its people.
Jim Atkinson stepped up as interim city manager on Jan. 20 after the city ended its contract with former city manager Chris Thomas. On April 9, Lakeland’s city board approved him for the permanent position.
He said Friday he’s loving his new role. Lakeland, founded in 1972, is a very young city with an active population and a developing identity. He is already hearing from citizens who are asking for city growth, more entertainment venues, and more restaurants.
Atkinson has worked for the city for just over 10 years, starting as the planning director and deputy growth management director and continuing in those roles for about eight and a half years. During that period, he went back to school and earned a graduate certificate in public administration.
Enjoying the studies and his work, he began considering a career in city management. After a while, Atkinson realized he had no plans to seek a higher role elsewhere if a position did not open up in Lakeland. He didn’t view the city as a steppingstone to anywhere — he just loved Lakeland.
“This is home,” he said. “I feel comfortable here. I like the people. I like the issues that we deal with as a city.”
When the city manager role opened up, it felt like a natural step to apply.
He believes that his tenure with the city and his planning experience helped him learn the ins and outs of Lakeland in his prior years of service as he he worked on a comprehensive city plan, reviewed subdivisions and did new land development regulation.
In early 2014, he was promoted to director of planning and administration in the wake of a city hall housecleaning that eliminated many positions. Suddenly, he was the only planner in the office and also took on all the administrative tasks. He was over all facilities, park facilities, the trash contract, building permits, even the reception desk.
“That was overwhelming, to be sure,” he said with a laugh. “That went on for about a year or so.”
The bare-bones operations of 2014 meant city employees scrambled to get the work done and find new efficiencies.
“Now we’re at a point where we’re adding some staff back in again, strategically,” he said. “Not to go back to the levels we were at before, but strategic staff additions are enabling us to get people into their primary job function and stay there so they can excel at what they do.”
He made a job offer to a new planning director on April 10 to be over planning, economic development and code enforcement. A new maintenance tech worker started Monday. Atkinson also will be hiring a new city recorder, parks director and code enforcement officer soon.
Atkinson’s vision for the city is growth and modernization. For example, he aspires to transition the city from a paper-driven manual operation to web-based electronic filing, which will be a big part of the new city recorder’s role. He anticipates have an enterprise system to tie it all together and is currently researching options.
“We want to be completely data driven wherever we can,” he said.
Lakeland has a file for every address in the city in a room full of filing cabinets, and contracts are in the city’s vault. Ordinances and policies are all back there, in paper form. It will take time for all city files to go fully digital – building permits, code violations, and everything else.
“It’s exciting, though,” Atkinson said. “I think our decision-makers can be better if they have better data to rely on, if we can show our efficiency.”
A current priority taking up big swaths of his time is working on Lakeland’s next budget with city finance director Jessica Millspaugh for presentation to the mayor and board in May. Their work covers everything from line items to determination of the spending priorities based on what he knows about this city board’s goals.
Street maintenance will be one of those big priorities, using the recently developed prioritized list of road repairs, he said. The repair plan is also helping city employees communicate better with citizens who wonder why their street’s repair isn’t at the top of the list.
Other prioritized projects include cleaning up the medians on Canada Road with simple well-maintained landscaping and signage, as well as ensuring that the city remains presentable with city hall maintenance, roadside trash pickup, and weed control.
What Lakeland needs
“I think we need to define our vision as a city,” Atkinson said. “… The real issue is Lakeland has always depended on others for services. From schools, police, fire, code enforcement, contract with trash, sort of. It’s sort of been the model, and it was great starting off. So you have no taxes. We didn’t provide any services ourselves.”
Then the city was required to lay sewage pipes, and Lakeland had infrastructure to maintain. So began the city’s efforts to generate income. Lakeland wanted to stay a no-tax city that was beginning to offer some services at a low cost that can be covered by sales tax revenue, Atkinson said. Toward that end, the city annexed commercial areas, but eventually that step was not sustainable.
He, the mayor and the board envision the city developing more city services at the right time and the right price for Lakeland.
Planning now is expected to serve the city well as it transitions from dependence to more independence, Atkinson believes. “At some point, when you rely on others, if something happens to upset the apple cart in one of those services that we don’t have any control over, then it affects us. Schools happened, and it affected us.”
Changes in fire service are starting to affect Lakeland, he said. The recent raise in fire fees is beyond the city’s control if they want to continue using Shelby County Fire Department’s services. He also said outsourcing, rate hikes or disbanding in any of the Shelby County services currently used in Lakeland could affect the city.
“So one of my jobs right now is to think beyond just the immediate school issue and ask those ‘what if?’ questions and start developing options and ideas for the other services as well,” Atkinson said.
He expects that development will proliferate around Lakeland Prep if the $50 million bond issuance passes the April 16 vote and the school is built, and the city will continue adding new revenue streams as residents are attracted to the city. He expects guidance will be helpful from the Lakeland Development Corporation (the city’s industrial development board that replaced the former Economic Development Commission).
An attitude shift is also improving Lakeland’s attractiveness to developers, he said. From a planning side, Lakeland is now more of a facilitator rather than a regulator. That doesn’t mean the city’s standards will be lower; it means the city will be working harder to help developers meet those standards.
“We know what we want,” Atkinson said. “We want good quality development, and we have a development code that says, ‘Here’s what we want you to do with your property if you want to develop it in Lakeland.’ So our role now is, instead of trying to catch them on the details, set them back and send them away, we say, ‘We’re here to help you achieve what we want. So we’re going to take your plan and we’re going to help you through this process, hold your hand if necessary, to get this enterprise that everybody wants.’ ”
Chain of command
One of the issues often discussed with the previous city manager’s administration was a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. Atkinson said the city managed as four new commissioners and a new city manager grew into their roles.
He believes the city’s current administrative and political leadership is seasoned, and he has a clear vision about the city’s leadership dynamics: He is here to help the mayor and board and to implement their policies. He and his staff will have to be flexible enough to adapt to a new vision whenever a new city board is elected.
He explained that Lakeland divides responsibilities between the political side (policy makers) and administrative side (policy implementers). The city board has authority over his role as city manager, and he has authority over the city’s other 22 or so staff members.
“We work together,” he said. “We’re on the same team. We just have different roles on the same team. And I think when you can get everybody thinking that way, it makes it easier to work together to achieve something.”
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.