November 2022 may seem like a long time away, but there is a lot going on in the city of Chico government right now. A city tax is currently being planned to be on the ballot next year. Meet the person in charge of running the city of Chico day-to-day: Mark Orme.
City Manager: In a Nutshell
Mark Orme is the city manager of Chico.
The City of Chico operates under what’s called a “Council-Manager form of government.” The city manager works with the Chico City Council which has seven members elected by the different districts of Chico.
If you have ever voted as a Chico resident, you most likely voted for a Chico council member. Chico is currently under redistricting process for November 2022 elections, read Jake Hutchinson’s story.
Council members, on behalf of their voters, create policy objectives — desired outcomes that council people wish to achieve. These objectives, for example, would be a request to develop infrastructure, hire more police or fire; city cleaning; or even an ice rink.
It’s Orme’s job to conduct the symphony of city employees to carry out these objectives. Orme must manage the day-to-day city services that keep the city functioning as well as new objectives requested by the city council.
“They tell us what kind of meal they want, what sides they want with it, and then we have to figure out how to cook it,” Orme said.
How he does it: the city’s organizational structure
In an attempt to realize objectives set forth by the City Council, Orme uses the city’s organizational structure to make paper plans into reality.
Orme said he oversees all city departments and employees — more than 400 people who work in city administration, information technology, finance, public works, fire, airport, waste and other countless professions. Within each of the city departments are managers who report to Orme directly.
Orme hires the police chief; fire chief; and the directors of public works operations; public works engineering, administration, human resources, community development, and risk management. He then authorizes the department heads to hire their own staff. The city clerk and city attorney are not hired by Orme, but the council.
“That’s an exciting part of my job,” Orme said. “It’s nice to be able to know that I have the ability to hire the people that are going to directly influence the employees within that department.”
Orme said this is one of many ways to structure a city. Orme said he is an accredited member of the International City Managers Association and is connected to a database where he communicates amongst other city managers on how to deal with public issues.
“There is not one perfect design. There just isn’t. As resources shift, as expertise comes into the city, you can manage the organization to create differentiating departments,” Orme said.
When an objective is given by the Chico city council to Orme, he delegates work to the differentiating departments.
Let’s say, for example, the city council wishes to hire three new firefighters. Orme must meet with the departments of fire, administration, human resources and others to create a way to search for candidates, be able to pay them a salary and be in compliance with the law.
“There is a constant flow of needs in the community. Picking up the leaves, street sweeping, making sure animal control gets the dog off the roadway,” Orme said. “There’s just the day-to-day grind and then you have all these other things popping up that you then have to manage. Cannabis is one of those.”
Besides the day-to-day, Orme is also responsible for finding out what needs aren’t being met and how to approach them. For example, Orme managed the city of Chico through an emergency when victims of the Camp Fire in 2018 increased Chico’s population by 21%.
“It was amazing. To manage a city within a city,” Orme said. Orme recalled Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn was staying overnight at his house to guide him. McGlynn went through a similar crisis when Santa Rosa had wildfires in 2017.
“I am a strong believer in one of the proverbs ‘with many counselors comes wisdom comes success,’” Orme said.
At the end of the day, Orme needs to communicate with this massive team as well as outside counselors to maintain the city services and make change happen in Chico. None of this, however, is done without money.
Balancing the budget
An average individual might have a checking account or a savings account at their bank. For a city, they may have several different accounts which all have different rules to use. Orme said there are more than 300 accounts managed at the city.
“You can’t just say ‘I have a checking account and then spend it however you want,’” Orme said. “There is this differentiation between how you make sure you are abiding by the law in accordance with how you spend these funds.”
Orme said the two primary sources of revenue to the city — sales tax and property tax — go into the city’s general fund which is at $56 million. Other fund accounts called enterprises keep revenue streams within the account, for example, sewage revenue pays for sewage cost.
“The general fund is really the lifeblood of the city. It funds the police, the fire, and the parks. That’s always the one people are looking at closely,” Orme said. The general fund is the “vital component that pays for those principal areas where people expect they’re going to get service from.”
This year, police received 48.4 percent of the city’s general budget and fire received 24 percent. As the city council constantly changes its goals, so does the city budget. You can read into detail of the city’s budget at https://chico.ca.us/city-budget.
Orme said he was hired in 2013 with his experience as assistant city manager of Hemet, CA when Chico was in a budget deficit of around $15 million. He was promoted from assistant city manager to city manager in 2014 and focused on the numbers.
“The major goals for the city for the first seven years that I was here was financial. That’s pure and simple,” Orme said. “Everything else got pushed to the side and it was a pure focus on maintaining a sound financial system.”
Orme said he had to cut back on city costs and consolidate several city departments into what they are today. The city manager’s office had 13.75 employees when he joined and now there are 4. Other city departments also experienced downsizing.
Orme said the city is now in a surplus of funds. For this next year, Orme said there are areas of improvement he wishes to address. Orme identified city needs in his report to the council earlier this year about the initiative for a sales tax.
“I reached out to each of the departments and I said, “OK department directors — tell me where the priorities are that we have not been able to manage well?’” Orme said.
Orme said more than 60% of the budget, as it was proposed, would go into public infrastructure, and right behind it would be policing and fire. These numbers are subject to change before the ballot.
At the end of each fiscal year, Orme’s ultimate responsibility is to present the city budget to the city council. The city budget document is intended to explain exactly what the city’s goals are and how it is achieved.
Orme provided the Enterprise-Record a list of what he says are big picture items — challenges and goals — that his staff are pressing forward with.
Strategic planning — Getting policymakers to fundamentally establish a vision with goals and objectives.
Police — How to keep a community safe when the state you live in doesn’t call a crime a crime. Orme said laws have been lessened in the state causing people to end up in the street rather than in jail or rehab.
Fire — How to enhance and reimagine an emergency response system that is antiquated and not efficiently deploying resources and services.
Public works — How to keep public spaces clean, safe and well-maintained and how to enhance public infrastructure through new roadways, bridges.
Finance — A continued emphasis on grant attainment and how to maintain providing critical public services when state unfunded mandates are pressing against resources. Orme said the state’s CalPERS program is dysfunctional and puts a strain on the city’s finances.
Information Technology — How to deploy the level of connectivity necessary to stimulate an environment that assures public safety responses are maintained and public access to information remains cost-effective and accessible.
Human Resources — How to compete in the marketplace to hire the best professionals possible when working is incentivized. Orme said there is a lack of desire for people to enter the government sector.
Economic Development — How to help support an economic ecosystem that should be a leader in the North state — in redeveloping property, in creating an entrepreneurial roadmap, and lessening the cost burden to start and maintain a business in Chico.
Development Services — Focusing on three areas of creating efficiency in the development process: quicker processing, surety of cost, and coaching through processes.
Long standing issues that have continued to simmer for years — Legally: Chico Scrap; homelessness and the Emergency Non-Congregate Housing Site; and Bruce Road.
Orme did not mention, but included in his list as “taking up a tremendous amount of time as well” — retail cannabis; air service at Chico airport; regional collaborations with Paradise sewer, Community Choice Aggregation, Ground Water Sustainability Act; and the BMX Track reconstruction.
A day in the life of Mark Orme
Orme said he starts the weekdays at 4 a.m. He begins with a little bit of prayer time. He reads the bible, checks his phone for emails, and does a little workout.
By 8 a.m. he’s in the office working. Courtney Carrier, the executive administrative assistant for Chico City Manager’s Office, schedules Orme’s workday blocking meetings every 30 minutes.
“Each day he at least is meeting with a staff member, one or two. He’s always got one-on-one meetings with staff members,” Carrier said. “He does webinars with organizations like the League of California Cities, Education for Leaders, and whatnot.”
Carrier said Orme meets biweekly at least with the CSUC president and meets regularly with the chief information officer for the county.
“I always try to give him little buffers so he can catch up on emails,” Carrier said. “He gets hundreds of emails a day.”
Carrier said that Orme is usually at work when she arrives in the morning and rarely leaves at the same time as she does.
“On council nights, that makes for a long day,” Orme said. “Oftentimes we’re not out of there until 10 or sometimes 11 at night.”
Meetings upon meetings every single day are lined up for Orme. And when he’s off the clock, he’s still working on calling people back and emailing. After all, it’s seems necessary when overseeing a city with more than 400 employees and reporting to 7 bosses.
“That’s the thing I think a lot of people don’t realize with the city manager’s job. It’s 24/7. Even though people think you have the day off, this never stops. If PD deals with an issue; there’s a structure on fire; guess what — I’m making sure the council is aware. Doesn’t matter the day of the week, doesn’t matter what time it is.”
Orme reflects on his profession role as city manager.
“It’s a wonderful joy to be able to help create a community. We are really blessed to be able to help this community grow and get through the challenges that we’re facing,” Orme said. “Being in the position that I’m in — it’s a great responsibility, but it brings a lot of joy as well.”