Brady rides out 15 years of Mesa storms as city manager The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Brady rides out 15 years of Mesa storms as city manager

December 17th, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
Brady rides out 15 years of Mesa storms as city manager
Mesa
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BY GARY NELSON
Tribune Contributor

It would be the rare little boy who dreams of growing up to be a city manager. Chris Brady was not one of them.

As a student at Brigham Young University in the 1980s, Brady aimed instead at a business career. That, after all, is where the money is.

But an unexpected detour by means of a political science class got him interested in city government – the upshot for Mesa being that for 15 years, he has steered the city through some of the hairiest moments in its history.

The field of municipal government is littered with the figurative corpses of city managers who got crosswise with their mayors or their city councils. But Brady, 58, has avoided stepping on land mines to such an extent that he hopes Mesa will be the last stop of his career.

“Every city has challenges, Mesa included,” Mayor John Giles said. “But we are, relative to a lot of other places, doing extremely well. And Chris Brady deserves much of the credit for that.”

As city manager, Brady serves as the chief executive officer for an organization of some 4,000 employees and oversees about $1.8 billion in annual operating and capital spending to serve a population of more than 500,000. His annual salary is $271,000.

Giles said Brady has proven adept at juggling the needs of the city’s aging west side with those of the still-growing east, managing huge infrastructure projects, negotiating sophisticated deals to bring high-profile corporations to Mesa and motivating a strong, lean staff to keep the city running.

Brady’s career in public service sprang from his assignment to interview a local government official for a political science class. He wound up speaking with the city manager of Provo, Utah.

“He was very impressive,” Brady told The Tribune. “And it got me to thinking more about the opportunity that I could be involved on the business management side but also could be doing something significant and contributing to the community in which I lived.”

His first stop, after earning a master’s degree in public administration from BYU, was Houston, Texas, a two-year stint that immersed him in city finances. Then six years in Bellaire, Texas, where he served for a time as acting city manager. And from there to San Antonio.

In San Antonio, Brady served 10 years as assistant city manager, helping to land a Toyota plant and a large convention center hotel.

Early challenges

Mesa began looking for a city manager in 2005 after Mike Hutchinson announced his retirement.

Brady heard about the job through friends who had moved from San Antonio to Mesa, and he was somewhat familiar with the area because his wife, Shawna, grew up in Scottsdale.

But, Brady said, “I really didn’t know much about Mesa. I didn’t know how big it was. I really didn’t know much about the area other than visiting my wife’s family in Scottsdale a few times.”

As one of two finalists for the job, Brady made the rounds of Mesa’s community leaders to immerse himself in the city’s civic culture. With strong backing from the City Council, he settled into his office on the seventh floor of Mesa’s city hall in January 2006.

By then, Mesa and the term “cash-strapped” had all but become synonymous. Looking for a way to stabilize the city’s finances, community leaders were pushing hard for a local primary property tax.

But voters rejected that idea by a 60-40 percent margin in May 2006, opting to stick with a 1945 financing model that forces Mesa to rely on sales taxes and utility revenue to fund city services.

As Brady juggled Mesa’s iffy finances, he also found a need to reconfigure the city’s organizational structure.

“I recognized the organization had a lot of really good people,” Brady said. “But I also recognized that … how it was structured needed to be adjusted to be more modern and more responsive.”

Financial cliff

That restructuring went into hyperdrive in the summer of 2008 as Mesa plunged into its worst budget crisis since at least the Great Depression.

Brady recalls walking to Mayor Scott Smith’s office with word that city sales taxes had tanked amid a collapse of the housing market.

“I had to go down to his office and say, ‘This is a lot worse than we ever imagined,’” Brady recalled. “It was scary.”

Hundreds of city employees lost their jobs as Brady struggled to plug a $60 million budget hole.

But the crisis led to innovations that streamlined operations and saved money.

Among them: The use of small, two-person vehicles for non-critical medical calls and civilian crime-scene investigators for non-violent offenses.

The recession also cost Mesa an opportunity to land what had been touted as a world-class resort and water park that developers wanted to build on the site of what was then Riverview Golf Course at the intersection of Loops 101 and 202.

Brady said the Waveyard proposal looked promising, but “it needed to be financed and we weren’t willing to give up all control of the land until they demonstrated that they had the financing in place. … They were literally in the offices of Lehman Brothers when the market crashed on them.”

As disappointing as that was, Brady’s caution gave Mesa an ace in the hole when the next crisis emerged.

Battle for the Cubs

The Chicago Cubs, under new ownership, flirted seriously with moving their spring-training operations to Florida in 2009. Mesa, which had hosted the team on and off since the early 1950s, was mortified.

“The Cubs and Mesa was a big deal,” Brady said. “It was more than just games. It was an identity for us.”

Mesa got no help from the Legislature or other agencies in its fight to keep the Cubs. But Brady and Smith hit on the idea of selling the city’s large land holdings in Pinal County, purchased for water rights in the 1980s.

With that money, Mesa had the wherewithal to build the Cubs an $84 million training complex on the Riverview site that Waveyard had lost. Voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved the idea.

“It worked out pretty well for us that we had that property available for the Cubs,” Brady said.

The battle for the Cubs was a huge deal for the city, Giles said, and one that perfectly encapsulates Brady’s value to Mesa.

“The skills that he demonstrated in building that project, he’s used them over and over again,” Giles said.

As Mesa recovered from the Great Recession, the city experienced relatively smooth sailing for the next 10 years.

And then COVID-19 hit.

Amid the first economic shocks of the pandemic, Brady and the City Council tightened Mesa’s belt severely last spring, paring jobs and closing some city facilities.

“Three or four years ago we expected a recession, so we started preparing for that,” Brady said. “We didn’t realize it was going to be quite what we are experiencing now. But the interesting phenomenon is that our numbers show that more people are staying home and spending money locally, so we’re capturing a lot more sale tax revenue than we have in the past.”

A different city now

Brady believes his stewardship has broad community backing, as evinced by the city’s successes in tax, bond and special elections since his arrival.

The 2008 general obligation bond election was especially significant, Brady said. It was the first time Mesa voters were told they would pay a secondary property tax to pay for the borrowing, and they said yes.

That winning streak continued with the 2020 election, when voters OK’d $100 million in bonds for transportation projects amid the worsening pandemic.

“Getting huge support for that to me is another validation that many people in our community trust us and they endorse what we are doing,” Brady said.

Crises, and the headlines they create, come and go. But Brady said he is most concerned with just keeping the city running day to day and making sure its employees are safe.

“If you woke up and your water didn’t come on or your toilet didn’t flush, or the streetlights didn’t work – all those little things you just assume are always going to be there – that’s what we do every day,” Brady said.”

He sees Mesa as a different place now than when he first arrived.

Back then, the city was being slammed in the media for not aggressively pursuing a potential opportunity to land a Google facility. Now, he said, Mesa goes after those things and is finding it can compete.

“I like to think that people see us as a very competitive, dynamic community,” Brady said. “We can do that with the best cities in the country.”

Giles said Brady’s greatest accomplishment probably lies in the diversified nature of what he’s done for Mesa.

“Maybe that’s the ultimate compliment you can pay him, is that there are so many that it’s impossible to identify a single thing,” Giles said. “Many city managers, if they had one of these things on their resume, they would retire a happy person and brag about it for the rest of their lives. But Chris has multiple major achievements.”

There are more challenges ahead.

Brady said the biggest one is trying to determine what the economy will look like in the post-COVID world. But he said as long as he can maintain good relationships with the City Council members, mayors and others with whom he works, he won’t be going anywhere.

“Hopefully they’ll let me stay long enough to finish off my career here,” Brady said. “That’s my hope.”

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