JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A retirement incentive unlike any Johnson City had ever offered ended with about the participation level City Manager Cathy Ball expected — and it’s providing important opportunities for the city, she said.
Out of 58 eligible employees who’d worked at least 30 years with the city, 23 took the offer: choose by Jan. 31, retire Feb. 28 and get six months’ salary and city health insurance (if desired) to age 65.
Three of the eight eligible department heads — Police Chief Karl Turner, Public Works Director Phil Pindzola and Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis — are retiring.
“It’s an opportunity to organizationally look at what those changes do,” Ball said, noting that many of the 23 retirees had some level of leadership.
“I think it’s looking at places where we can either consolidate departments or reorganize in a way that’s holistic, as opposed to it being more of just replacing one for one or looking at how do we fill a hole versus how do we look at the whole organization,” Ball said.
Ball said tremendous change has occurred during the men’s careers, and especially in the past several years through the COVID pandemic.
“It gives us this opportunity to say how do we become an organization that then responds to this (changed environment) in a way that meets the needs of the citizens in a potentially more cost effective way?” Ball said. “How do we integrate technology? How do we change communication?
“The real story will be for me is, ‘what did we do different, that we learned different, that now we be able to define and it looks different in the way we do service delivery?’ Not better, just different.”
While the coming months will be jam-packed with training remaining people, searching for the right replacements and looking at organizational structure, Ball said a strategic batch of retirements offered the best way to look at the city’s mission.
“It gives us this opportunity for this to become a focal point and a strategic goal over the next six months versus very reactionary, not on the work plan, having to respond to it very quickly, and then not being sure and confident that we’re approaching it very strategically,” she said.
Departure of some icons
Ball herself is only about 15 months in with the city but said she’s learned in that time that the departing employees, and certainly the three department heads, had a tremendous impact on Johnson City.
She called Pindzola, who started with Johnson City in September 1978, “an icon.”
“I think all of us would be remiss in not knowing and looking around the city and being able to attribute so many things in the city to the work that Phil Pindzola has done,” Ball said.
She said Pindzola, Turner and Ellis, with more than a century combined working for Johnson City, have made huge impacts.
“From a historical knowledge standpoint, it’s a huge change,” she said. “We’re all in a little space of a little bit of grieving, a little bit of ‘you know, we’re gonna miss these folks.’ They’ve contributed so much to our city.”
That was the assessment of Shannon Castillo, a Johnson City Development Authority commissioner and realtor who’s worked with Pindzola a great deal over the years. She said he’s had a major impact on downtown’s redevelopment.
“For years to come, we will be able to look at – especially in downtown – the things that have transpired,” Castillo said. “We will be able to say that Phil Pindzola had his fingerprint on it. He has been a great visionary for the revitalization of downtown Johnson city.”
Ball said the disruption the retirement offer has caused is actually a part of what she believes will help the organization accomplish the most. In the meantime, the anticipation of the changes and now their aftermath are the center of much discussion.
“I think it’s healthy for the organization to realize that this is a significant impact. I think if we look back in five years … this will be a milestone of something that happened. And while we’re doing it for good reasons, and I still believe it’s the right thing to do, it isn’t without those emotional bonds to people that will make us miss them.”
Ball said city residents shouldn’t worry about the status of major projects like the West Walnut Street corridor revitalization or a major expansion of Winged Deer Park with Pindzola and Ellis, respectively, stepping away.
“I know that there are these significant projects in the community that these folks have led but we will continue to make sure that we deliver on those projects,” Ball said.
Johnson City has offered retirement incentives before, but they’ve always been driven by budget concerns and have been early retirement offers. Ball said when she took the job and saw how many key leaders were at or near retirement eligibility, she eventually came up with the plan.
Crunch time is here, but she said the short-term disruption is preferable to the prospect of key people retiring with little notice or time to develop a good succession plan.
“Continuing to, to have that over a long period of time actually is extremely disruptive to an organization,” she said.
Instead, Ball is confident what may look like a sudden large vacuum in several departments was planned out. The positions will be left open until July 1.
“We want to get the right people for the right job,” Ball said. “I don’t know that we will have them filled (by July 1) based upon how the recruiting process goes. We’re going to make sure we get the right people in the right job.”