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Penny, and her thoughts

Springs' new city manager talks about past successes and long-range plans


Penny Culbreth-Graft with her new backdrop, far from - Surf City USA. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY
  • L'Aura Montgomery
  • Penny Culbreth-Graft with her new backdrop, far from Surf City USA.

Taking off her puffy blue coat, the city's brave new leader frowns, pats down a few stray hairs and says she has yet to dig her hairspray out of her moving boxes. What you see is what you get. Well, sort of.

What you see is a 50-year-old woman who is eager to tell you about her son (who just got married), her four grown stepchildren, her 12 grandkids, her very patient Vietnam vet husband (currently waiting in the car for her), and her passions for sewing, teaching, writing and jogging.

What you see is a nice lady, explaining how a little embroidery can really jazz up a pair of jeans.

And then, just when you think you get her, you make the mistake of suggesting that Penny Culbreth-Graft might soon prefer golf to audits. At this, Colorado Springs' new city manager glares through sunglasses and declares, "I'll never retire!"

It's likely this side of Culbreth-Graft the multi-tasking, workaholic, administrative tiger side that landed her the city manager gig, despite competition from the Springs' assistant city managers, Mike Anderson and Greg Nyhoff.

Culbreth-Graft has plans for this city. Or rather, she will she'll start drafting them in 12 to 18 months. The woman whose past city makeovers earned her the title "change agent" says she tailors her strategies to her environment. She's not into cookie-cutter reformation.

"When I leave a city," she says, "I leave it behind."

Ready for roots

On Jan. 7, Culbreth-Graft will begin scrutinizing Springs budgets and audits in earnest, and getting to know the city and its leaders (including those assistant city managers). After that, she says, she'll create a 10- to 15-year plan.

"As a change agent, I look for an environment that I can help shape," she says. "I like to work with people and watch them think. I like to empower people."

In the past, Culbreth-Graft has implemented sweeping changes, then moved on. But now, she says, she's ready to put down roots.

Councilman Jerry Heimlicher says that's fine by him. He's impressed with Culbreth-Graft's fresh perspective, team-player attitude and how much she already knows about the city.

"To me, the biggest difference between her and the other two candidates is, they were both going to be swayed by, "This is the way we've always done it,'" he says. "What she's going to bring is a new set of eyes and ears."

But why did Culbreth-Graft leave her job as a well-liked city administrator in Huntington Beach, Calif., aka "Surf City USA"?

"If you've figured out what you wanted to do and done it, there's no thrill anymore," she explains. "You basically work yourself out of a job."

Colorado Springs, with its size and more diverse population, presented the type of challenge she was looking for. There was also her husband to think about; he recently developed environmental asthma and needed to be in a cool, dry climate.

Beyond that, she says, both of them fell in love with the Springs and its natural beauty.

"My husband and I are both hoping and planning this as our last city move," she says. "We say we want to be buried in Colorado."

Penny and the city

Culbreth-Graft has worked as a city administrator in Tucson, Ariz., as well as Grover Beach, Riverside, Chino and San Diego in California. She's also served as tribal government manager for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego County.

When she started in 2004 at Huntington Beach, the city had just laid off 78 employees. Fiscally speaking, Huntington Beach is a lot better off these days.

"The Council has had nothing but praise, especially in the budget area," Huntington Beach city spokeswoman Laurie Payne says.

Payne notes that Culbreth-Graft developed a strategic plan for the city, created a goal-centered budget, swelled the city's reserve funds and accelerated capital-improvement projects. All this in a city that operates under a law similar to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) here.

Culbreth-Graft knows how to wrangle a skin-tight budget. But she doesn't come across as a stony-eyed clear-cutter. She winces at the phrase "service cuts."

"I never look at a budget with tight resources and assume that anything has to go," she says. "You don't want to cut your heart out."

Instead, she says, she pores over the past 20 years of city audits and compares individual budget lines.

"I dissect every single pocket of revenue and every expenditure," she says.

In looking for waste, she doesn't ask just government officials for help. She talks to community leaders and city employees, even organizing focus groups.

Stretching dollars means looking at details, she says. For instance, if criminal activity goes down when better recreation programs are offered, why not look at combining part of the parks and police budgets and letting the two departments work together?

If it works, you've doubled the power of your dollars.

TABOR will make budgeting difficult, she says, but shouldn't make it impossible.

"The people have the right to adopt their own laws," she says flatly. "Anything that limits your taxation ability, limits the resources that you can bring in ... but that's what government is all about, is the distribution of scarce resources."

Deserts and diversification

Local home-building and business growth have slowed as the economy has slumped. But Culbreth-Graft says the slump won't last, and the city has to be ready for the boom to follow.

First off, she says, is making sure we have the resources, especially water, to support growth. Culbreth-Graft says she's used to fighting the water battle. That's a hot topic in California, too.

"We're all in, essentially, deserts," she says of California and Colorado cities. "It will be one of the most difficult issues that you have to deal with as a city manager."

She says she'll work with our neighbors to find workable solutions.

When growth does happen, she says, it's important to influence how it will look. For instance, Banning-Lewis Ranch developer Makar Properties, LLC, has created pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Culbreth-Graft, who worked with Makar in California, says Banning-Lewis provides a good example of a developer listening.

"You want your city leaders to be a big part of that," she says.

Culbreth-Graft says she'll also develop strong relationships with the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. and local Chamber of Commerce. She thinks together they can work to attract businesses while boosting fiscal stability of a city dependent on sales-tax revenue.

"I think we need to diversify our base," she says. "Reliance on sales tax is difficult."

Good thing she loves a challenge.

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