New city manager connects the dots between public finance, policy

Heather Johnston, pictured during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, was appointed Burnsville’s seventh city manager on Tuesday, April 16. (Photo by John Gessner)

Burnsville’s new city manager has spent her career connecting the dots between public finance and public policy.

That won’t change now, said Heather Johnston, whose career follows a line between Washington, D.C., the state Capitol and Minneapolis and Burnsville city halls.

“I think it will be a continued process of fiscal restraint,” said Johnston, whose hiring to replace the retired Craig Ebeling was finalized by a City Council vote Tuesday. “I don’t see that changing anytime in the near future. I think that’s why Burnsville … has to continue to look at how to do things differently.”

Burnsville city government has slimmed down  over the years, Ebeling said last month, from a one-time high of more than 300 employees to the current roster of about 265. It cut spending by more than $3 million during difficult budget years in 2009 and 2010.

It’s a trajectory with which Johnston is familiar.

Before coming to Burnsville in October 2011 she spent nearly eight years directing the Management and Budget Division of Minneapolis’ Finance Department. Minneapolis, which faced deeper financial woes than Burnsville ever has, was already on a course correction toward budget tightening and debt-busting tax hikes when she started  in March 2004.

“There were a significant number of layoffs during my time there and some property-tax raising associated with pensions and things,” she said.

But Johnston described  her role as more than that of an impassive number-cruncher.

“I tried to have a good relationship with the department heads and make sure that I understood how the financial pressures were impacting their operations and encouraging them to do things differently,” she said.

The work was “sometimes very diplomatic, sometimes very straightforward. I tend to be pretty direct. I think you have to make clear with folks what the actual parameters are and give them enough information to make their decisions.”

She was originally hired in Burnsville as chief financial officer and director of administrative services, with oversight of several city functions in addition to finance.

“I have always been interested in branching out just beyond finance,” said Johnston, whose new contract will pay her a  $139,000 salary.

“I enjoy the big puzzle pieces, fitting the puzzle pieces together. I think I had always at some level thought about moving into more general management, city management, rather than just the financial piece.”

During graduate school in 1995, Johnston worked as a White House intern on Vice President Al Gore‘s “reinventing government” project.

After earning her masters in public administration from George Washington University, she worked for three years as a budget-preparation specialist and program examiner in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, a division of the executive office of the president.

“I had a lot of procurement and technology issues when I was working at  OMB,” Johnston said. “It was a great place to work. You learn a lot. It’s a very fast-paced environment.”

She then spent five years as an executive and senior executive budget officer with Minnesota Management and Budget, where she helped set, monitor and analyze K-12 and higher education budgets.

In Burnsville, the city faces new and continuing  challenges in bringing redevelopment to the  1,700-acre area known as the Minnesota River Quadrant, Johnston said.

State action to reduce the flow of garbage to landfills has extended the life of the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill from a previously projected 2019 to probably 2030, Johnston said.

City-collected tipping fees that were once $1 million a year have shrunk and could shrink more. Tipping fees account for $400,000 of annual debt payments on the city’s Performing Arts Center.

Reducing waste  dumping in landfills is a laudable goal, but there are “significant financial and economic development implications that I think haven’t been fully addressed,” Johnston said.

The Pollution Control Agency also has yet to reach a closure agreement with the owner of the long-dormant Freeway Landfill, another significant piece of river quadrant property.

“It’s just one of those things that’s been around a while, and we have to keep an eye on that,” Johnston said. “We have to keep an eye on all the different things and keep moving forward.”

Continuing to fund infrastructure replacement in the aging city is another challenge — along with figuring the effects of national health-care reform on the city’s ambulance service and part-time workers, Johnston said.

Johnston, 42, lives in Eagan with her husband and their two children.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity,” said Johnston, the unanimous choice of City Council members who interviewed three finalists for the city manager job on April 2. “I’m honored that the City Council has selected me for this position. We have a lot of great staff who work at the city of Burnsville and do a really great job for the residents.”