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Decade of Leadership: Springfield’s city manager reflects on his tenure

Greg Burris prepares to step down

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As the market was crashing in late summer 2008, Greg Burris was being sworn in as Springfield’s city manager.

“Why are they all on their BlackBerrys during the swearing-in ceremony?” Burris recalled thinking that day.

“I’ve known nothing but the Great Recession and digging out of it,” he said.

As he prepares to leave office at the end of the month after a near 10-year run as the city CEO, he said he’s most proud of his team.

“I would put them up against any leadership team in any city in the country,” he said.

Despite the financial challenges, he said the city never had to dip into its reserves, it kept a balanced budget each year and was one of a handful of cities in the country to have its bond rating increased during the Great Recession.

It went from an Aa2 rating in 2009 to an Aa1 the next year, according to Moody’s Analytics Inc.

Mayor Ken McClure, who has known Burris for nearly 20 years, praised Burris’ leadership of the city during the financial crisis.

“He immediately had strong financial challenges with which to contend,” McClure said. “He strongly navigated the city though that.”

It’s a point of pride and pain, Burris said.

“We were living in our means,” he said, and still, “It was extremely painful. It included some decisions that I didn’t want to have to make including some layoffs.

“That’s part of leadership: Having to lead through the good times and the bad.”

Pension problems
Right out of the gate after taking office, Burris said he made the deficit in the Springfield Police Officers’ and Fire Fighters Retirement System priority No. 1.

Due to a combination of issues, the pension fund had just $97 million in assets to cover its estimated $295 million obligation.

To solve the problem, city officials got a 3/4-cent sales tax for the pension plan approved in 2009 and renewed in 2014.

“If the citizens had not passed it, we would have probably been in bankruptcy,” Burris said.

Springfield Police Department Chief Paul Williams said Burris’ leadership helped save the department.

“When I got here in 2010, three people a month were leaving the Police Department,” he said, “pulling their money out because they weren’t sure it was going to be there.

“By the tax passing and people seeing (their) pension is going to be secured, people stopped leaving dramatically.”

Williams said if Burris and voters wouldn’t have sorted out the pension issue, he wouldn’t have taken the job with the department.

“We’ve gone from 265 people to 350 people in eight years, which is unheard of in my profession,” he said.

Highs and lows
Amid the highlights of his tenure, Burris said he’ll never forget the dark days.

He recalled having to lay off city employees after budget cuts, an accident at the Dickerson Park Zoo that killed an elephant keeper and an accident at the city landfill that killed a worker. He also noted the difficulty on the day that Springfield Officer Aaron Pearson was shot.

He said he feels the weight of the position every time he hears a siren.

“When I hear a siren, a police or fire siren … I know it’s my team that’s going out to put their life on the line in some way,” he said. “That will probably always stay with me.”

Some days that made him smile include the kickoff of the City Ambassador Program, CAmP, a leadership-training program for employees, and the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.

“Anything where people are enjoying their city, that’s what makes me proud,” he said.

Another win for the city, Burris said, was bringing the taboo subject of poverty to the forefront. The 18-month Zone Blitz wrapped up in April. It brought together hundreds of partners to improve quality of life for residents in northwest Springfield, Zone 1.

“We’ll be seeing the very positive effects for a long time,” Williams said.

Williams said Burris had a unique ability as a leader to not just give lip service.

“I’ve never been around anybody that has a gift for being able to quickly dive into and engage in conversation and have ideas, suggestions and vision, if needed,” he said.

Williams said he’s disappointed Burris is resigning. “I don’t think he was done or we were done,” he said.

McClure said Burris had a “thankless” and “24/7” job over the past 10 years. He said he most admires Burris for his work ethic and ability to bring people together.

Burris said his wife calculated his working hours, and it’s about 75 hours a week. He said he’s ready for his next adventure with the city’s newly established Give 5 program.

“We’ve worked really hard over the past 10 years, and one of the things that I’m most proud of is that we’ve taken on the tough challenges and not kicked the can down the road,” he said.

Finding purpose
This summer, Burris will transition to executive director of Give 5, a city program to encourage retirees to give back to the community through volunteer opportunities.

“What about those 10,000 baby boomers who are turning 65 every day and retiring?” he said, describing the impetus for the program which he’ll lead part time. In Greene County, the latest data from the U.S. Census shows 16 percent of the population, or nearly 46,000 people, are over 65 years old.

Burris said these retirees have skills and experiences that could be used giving back.

Give 5 has graduated two classes of volunteers, who each spent a week touring local nonprofits and learning about volunteer opportunities.

“Our goal is for Springfield to get a national reputation as the community where retirees can come and get engaged in their community easily and regain that meaning and purpose in the next chapter of their lives,” he said.

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