On His Last Day, John Szerlag Reflects on City Manager Career in Troy
"I'm going to miss all of the good people who are here," said Szerlag, who recently accepted a city manager position in Florida.
In 1973, an eager young intern stepped into Troy City Hall hoping to learn a thing or two about municipal government. He worked hard, attended graduate school at night and eventually landed a job out of town.
Then, in 1989, John Szerlag made his way back to Troy to take over as assistant city manager. For the next decade, he worked with City Manager Frank Gerstenecker before taking over as city manager in 1999. Szerlag and Gerstenecker have served as Troy's two longest-tenured city managers, and together, the pair have clocked 37 years as city manager out of the past 55 years since Troy became a city.
"I was city manager through 2006, then I went to Florida for three years," Szerlag said. "There was an opening for city manager here. I did not apply for the job. City Council, after they went through the interview process, asked me if I wanted to be the city manager again, and I said yes."
A challenging move
Szerlag said coming back to Troy in the middle of a recession posed a special challenge.
"That was really the most difficult time frame of my career – the last few years here – because we had to match a declining revenue line," he said. "The biggest mistake I made in my career was when we went to extrapolate out our revenue that was declining rapidly. If we didn't change way we operated, we would've gone bankrupt by this time."
Szerlag's proposed solution to declining revenue: A 1.9 mill increase, which would have translated to an average of $40 extra in property taxes per household per year in Troy.
"That was the big mistake I made because then I was an alarmist, and then it was a conspiracy to raise taxes."
Szerlag said people would ask why Troy needed to raise its taxes if other cities weren't doing the same at the time, but "shortly afterward, we became exonerated because virtually every city faced financial crisis," he said. "They're still facing financial crisis."
He added, "I'm leaving Troy in better financial shape than when I found it."
Advice for Troy's future
One thing Szerlag will leave behind when he heads to Florida to take over as Cape Coral City Manager is his staff, which he says is a true group of professionals.
"I've got a great staff here, and whoever is hired as city manager is going to be fortunate to work with such professional staff," he said. "They're hardworking and altruistic, and we have what's known as a culture of professionalism."
Szerlag, who is generally well-liked by his staff and council members, said he is concerned about the future of the city's staff and the quality of employees Troy will be able to attract in coming years. City employees recently took a 10 percent pay cut across the board, which Szerlag says is almost unheard of.
"Their benefits aren't 'Cadillac' benefits," he added. "My concern is that Troy's not keeping pace in certain areas. ... The city needs to maintain an interest in attracting and maintaining quality employees, and to do that, you have to take a look at what surrounding communities are compensating their employees. You can't outsource to another country the services we provide here in Troy."
He said that, though more cuts will be needed in the future to avoid financial disaster, cutting resources to city staff just isn't an option any more.
A pirate room for grandpa
Szerlag said that though he is looking forward to tackling the challenges of a new community, he is especially looking forward to living closer to his 2-year-old grandson, Clint.
"We're renting an apartment, and I told my wife Debbie that she can do whatever she wants to the apartment, but one room, one bedroom, is mine," he said. "I'm going to decorate it like a pirate's trove, and I'm looking forward to having my grandson see that."
When asked if retirement is in his future, Szerlag, 61, laughed and said he'd keep working as city manager of Cape Coral "as long as it's enjoyable." Not one to ever truly stop working, Szerlag said he'd also like to teach at the university level and coach youth sports – especially hockey – in his spare time.
And sports are one thing he's going to miss about Michigan.
"When I was younger, I did everything, though none of them well," he said. "I'd hunt, fish, ski, sail, swim – Michigan is a great place for someone that wants to dabble in just about any outdoor sport that there is."
Between May and October, nothing beats Michigan weather, he said, and he'll also miss the changing leaves in the fall. Though he had to admit that the idea of golfing comfortably in December is alluring.
A parting message
Szerlag, who is offcially no longer city manager of Troy after 5 p.m. Friday, said it's not the sports or the weather that he'll miss most about Michigan.
"I'm going to miss all of the good people who are here," Szerlag said. "I just want to say that it was a pleasure, for the most part, being city manager in Troy."
He also offered a message to council members, city staff and residents.
"They're left with a community that's in better financial condition than most other communities are, and it's up to all the stakeholders to make sure it stays that way."