By Erich Wagner (File photo)
It’s been an interesting first couple of months on the job for Mark Jinks, to say the least.
From closing a substantial budget deficit to looking for ways to oppose Norfolk Southern’s plans to expand its already unpopular ethanol transloading facility, his tenure as acting city manager has been anything but smooth sailing.
“It was a bit harried, because the [budget] gap that we thought was $16 million, when we started working on it in mid-December and put the information together in more detail, the number got as high as $31 million,” said Jinks, who was appointed as permanent city manager earlier this month. “So just as departments were just about ready to submit their budgets to us, we had to ask them to go back and work on reduction options.”
Jinks has served in Alexandria for more than 15 years. He joined the city in 1999 as its chief financial officer and served in that role for a decade, before he was promoted to deputy city manager. He was awarded the city’s top administrative job on an acting basis in January, after the resignation of former City Manager Rashad Young, who left to become city administrator for D.C.
That decade as CFO made Jinks prepared for whatever deficit a budget might throw at him, he said.
“It certainly helped that I’ve probably done something like 37 budgets over the course of my career, in Michigan and then in Arlington County and once I came over as CFO for Alexandria,” he said. “On the one hand, it was a challenge, but on the other, we had a lot of help and a lot of ideas, and everyone pulled their weight and contributed ideas that ended up with a responsibly balanced budget with no tax increases and no gimmicks.”
Although Jinks has dealt with a number of challenges since coming into the job on an acting basis, he said among his top challenges going forward is continuing to provide services despite declining revenues, while remaining competitive with other jurisdictions on salaries.
“Over the last seven years, we’ve gone down 120 positions, and that’s going to be a continuing theme of doing more with less,” he said. “As an employer, we have not been the best paying employer, and we’re not going to be going forward, compared with the other main local governments in Virginia and Maryland.
“Our goal is to be in the middle of the pack on pay. I think we can make a big difference by being the employer of choice — having a rewarding workplace and providing an opportunity to learn and grow in your position and contribute to your community.”
Jinks said he wants to continue a number of initiatives that Young started, especially the community outreach efforts outlined in the framework of What’s Next Alexandria.
“We’re using that very successfully in the Eisenhower West planning process steering group,” he said. “We’ve had some very participative community meetings to help get the pulse in regard to what the best mix of land use and ideas for parks and roads are for that West End section of the city.
“That’s worked very well so far, and we want to make it more of a regular practice in all sorts of areas.”
The next step in that effort is finding ways to get people who are not typically engaged in city politics and governance to join the process, he said.
“Getting the public into the decision-making gets you better final decisions,” Jinks said. “But we need better strategies for getting to those who may not regularly come to meetings, because of work requirements or family issues, and to get their input as well.”
Jinks also wants to push for more efforts to modernize city offices and implement performance-based metrics for programs and services.
“It ties into our performance management initiatives, but I want to create a performance accountability office,” he said. “That way, we can find out what are the outcomes of our programs? What are the right performance measures to do that successfully and how do we use those measures in our decision-making process?
“One of the areas that focuses on is doing data-driven decision-making. Having worked for many years on budgets and finance, I know that the numbers tell a story.”
Jinks said he was very proud of his ability to fund a salary increase for police officers in his proposed fiscal 2016 budget, and he hopes to do something similar for fire/EMS workers and other city workers in the years to come.
And he wants to address questions of citywide equity — in both services and input — head-on, despite recent controversies like the lack of staffing for the newly opened Fire Station 210 on the West End.
“When we’re dealing with appointments to resident boards and commissions, I ask about people’s addresses,” Jinks said. “I want to know: Where do people live? And there already have been times where I’ve looked at the list [of nominees] and said, ‘This won’t work,’ because it tends to be all addresses east of Quaker Lane.
“I knew the names — they’re already the loudest voices — so I’ve said, ‘You need to look west and ask people to participate.’ And if we can’t find someone, we need to make phone calls.”