One evening when Ted Barkley was serving as city manager of Ellensburg, Wash., he said to his wife, “You followed me for my career – why don’t you do what you want, and I’ll follow you?”
Her immediate response was, “I want to go home.” ‘
“Home” to Deborah Barkley is her home state of Montana. Soon after that conversation, she accepted a job at Montana State University, laying the first stone of the path that ultimately would lead her husband to his next city manager job in Belgrade.
For a year and a half, Ted Barkley remained in Ellensburg and commuted to Bozeman every other weekend as he explored his options and considered becoming a personal financial advisor.
It was during that year and a half when Joe Menicucci, who had been Belgrade’s city manager for 23 years, passed away in May 2013.
Despite having spent his career in city administration in Ellensburg, Colorado and Kansas, Barkley says, “Initially, I wasn’t going to apply for the job. But when I looked at Belgrade, I saw a community with a lot more potential than what was recognized at the time.”
Barkley ultimately did apply for the job. According to council members who made the decision to hire him then, he stood out among the finalists because of his depth of knowledge and extensive experience. The council made its decision at the end of 2013, and Barkley started work in February 2014.
“He would never come to work here for the money we had to pay the guy if it weren’t for his wife having a job here,” Councilman Brad Cooper told the Belgrade News back then. “We were just pure lucky and there is no doubt about it. Sometimes things work out in our favor.”
Nearly eight years later, when asked whether he believes circumstances aligned because they were somehow meant to be, Barkley says simply, “It has crossed my mind.”
A look back
Tomorrow (Oct. 15), on his 65th birthday, Barkley will retire from the city of Belgrade, though he will stay on as a consultant for six to eight months.
The city will host a public celebration of his service Friday afternoon from 3:30-6 p.m. at City Hall.
Barkley seems so comfortable in his role of city manager that one might assume he was born to do it, but he says it took him a while to aspire to a career in public administration. Early in his career he was a police officer, then he went back to school to become a science educator. It was when he happened to “fall in with” a group of fellow students studying city management that his interest was piqued, and one day he realized, “I think I want to be a city manager.” He went on to earn his master’s degree in public administration.
Barkley believes there are several advantages for municipalities who operate under the city manager form of government.
“When you hire an executive, it depoliticizes government,” he said. “You can let a city manager go for any reason or no reason.”
Many city managers will be fired at last once in their careers, he adds, but “that’s the risk a city manager takes. They are always an election away from not working.”
But by all accounts, Barkley’s job was never in danger in Belgrade. To the contrary, the elected officials he worked with have nothing but good things to say about him.
“He’s done a lot in his time here,” Mayor Russ Nelson told the Belgrade News. “I’m going to miss him. He’s been a masterful city manager and a friend.”
“I want to thank him for all he’s done for Belgrade,” agrees City Councilwoman Kristine Menicucci. “He was a great fit – we knew that right from the start.”
Both Menicucci and Nelson credit Barkley with helping Belgrade recover from the economic downturn that drained the city’s reserves during the economic downturn that started in 2008.
“We had a decrease of, I think, 16.9 percent in our tax valuation from the recession,” Nelson said. “We survived the recession, but when the new appraisals came in from the state, those tax dollars were down significantly.”
By 2014, the recession was technically over, but “Belgrade has tended to lag both in economic growth and economic decline as compared to Bozeman and other part of the West,” Barkley said.
When he came on board, “Belgrade was still dealing with the continued effects of the recession.”
He says he and the council went to work to replenish city coffers through a 37-mill, seven-year levy, convincing voters it was needed so the city could continue to fund basic police, fire, and library services and avoid laying off employees. The measure passed in 2015, about a year after Barkley came to Belgrade.
“That was a vote of confidence in terms of the community in our future,” Barkley said.
In Barkley’s estimation, the next significant initiative he spearheaded was a 68-mill public safety levy in 2017, which “solidifies funding for the police department for the foreseeable future.”
The first municipal services levy was scheduled to sunset next year, but instead it was retired this year – in part, Barkley says, in recognition of the money Belgrade will save on fire protection services because it annexed last year into the Central Fire District.
Fire district annexation
Barkley says the annexation effort was the initiative he probably worked hardest on during his tenure as city manager.
Though the final step in the annexation was what turned out to be an overwhelmingly affirmative vote by Belgrade citizens in early March 2020, the vote itself was made possible only after three years of dogged work by Barkley and others after it became evident that the city’s population was likely to top 10,000 in the 2020 census.
Since 1947, the Central Valley Fire District had operated as a rural fire district separate from the Belgrade Fire Department. Though technically separate, the two entities had operated under the same chiefs with the same firefighters, same equipment and out of the same stations for decades. Through an interlocal agreement, the city collected property taxes and passed them on to Central Valley for fire and ambulance services in the city.
The arrangement could have continued in perpetuity were it not for an old Montana law requiring cities for form their own, independent fire departments once their populations reach 10,000. In Belgrade’s case, officials estimated that creating a new city fire department would cost taxpayers $3.3 million per year, as opposed to the $567,000 they were then paying to Central Valley for fire and ambulance services.
“On the state level, very few people understood (the issues involved),” Barkley remembers.
During the 2019 Legislature, then-Rep. Bruce Grubbs, R-Belgrade, sponsored a bill to change the law and thereby allow cities to annex into a fire district rather than establish their own.
Belgrade voters overwhelmingly voted to annex into the fire district in March 2020. Barkley believes it is the policy initiative passes during his tenure “that benefited Belgrade the most” and will have the biggest impact on the community measured in dollars.
Barkley said he has had to deal with two emergency responses during his career, one being Sept. 11, 2001, long before he came to Belgrade, and then the COVID-19 pandemic here. His leadership through the latter crisis is lauded by those who worked closely with him through months of quarantine and platooning of city staff to ensure that the city could maintain its services.
“He’s done a great job through the pandemic, keeping the staff safe and the public as safe as he could – that’s been a hard road for the past 18 months,” Menicucci said.
Kristi Gee, CEO of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
“We looked to him a little bit to lead us through that, and he did a nice job keeping a cool head and navigating through that time,” Gee said.
“He helped set up some of those emergency business loans – it was something we talked about early on, and it was his idea to sit back a little because we knew that PPP money was going to run out,” Gee remembers. “He had the forethought to sit back on this just a bit and offer (loans to businesses) when there weren’t any options out there.”
The one-building solution
Just last month, Belgrade voters endorsed another idea crafted under Barkley’s leadership when they approved a $14 million bond issue for a new library and community center. In addition to touting the benefits of the new building, city officials emphasized that passing the bond would create adequate space for crowded city departments.
Marketed as the “one-building solution,” the plan calls for moving the police department into the old library from its current space upstairs in City Hall, thereby opening the upper floor for more city offices.
The fact that the city is bursting at the seams without enough room for all city employees in City Hall “is kind of remarkable,” Barkley says, because the building seemed big and half-empty as recently as five or six years ago.
He recognizes that the $14 million commitment from voters represents a significant investment for them but he believes they ultimately will reap the benefits of their approval.
“I think that the one-building solution, along with the library and community center, has set Belgrade up for significant success by meeting city departmental needs and shaping downtown,” Barkley said.
An eye on the future
Barkley himself has been instrumental in efforts aimed at “shaping downtown,” according to those familiar with his efforts.
“The big thing he came up with to make an impact was with the Urban Renewal District and TIF (tax increment financing) district – I think it’s going to be a game-changer,” Menicucci said.
“Ted introduced it so it was clear that the (Downtown) Plan was connected with growth and with the TIF district,” she said, adding that Barkley’s support of the library capital campaign resulted in the project that will be the anchor on the east side of downtown.
The Downtown Plan isn’t the only plan Barkley helped develop in Belgrade – planning efforts in general consumed a significant amount of his time and energy, he said.
“People get frustrated when we spend a lot of time and money on planning because it doesn’t result in bricks and mortar,” he said. Nevertheless, he says, lots of projects ultimately are funded by grants and low-interest bonds, and those funding sources aren’t accessible unless plans are in place.
In the past few years, Belgrade has created plans for water, wastewater, land use, growth, parks, transportation and urban renewal.
“That’s where we are right now,” he said. “It will be the next council and manager’s chance to turn those into reality.”
Barkley predicts they will succeed as long as the economy remains reasonably strong. Among the things Barkley believes Belgradians can look forward to are completion of the wastewater treatment plant, the construction of the Jackrabbit underpass, and development of the downtown urban renewal area through tax increment funds that have been collected for new projects.
Barkley believes the passage of the library bond proves his feeling that the Belgrade community is of the mindset to “move forward” and further develop an identity of its own.
“When you ask people what that is, it’s sometimes very hard for them to articulate,” he said, though he believes people make the choice to move to Belgrade because it is a healthy place to live, work and play.
Asked how he would describe the city’s identity after nearly eight years as its city manager, he answered, “Belgrade is a community situated around families with school-age children, striving to build a community into their vision of what a community should be.”
It is that community that Barkley – a self-described introvert – has spent years getting to know, fulfilling a promise he uttered to the Belgrade News shortly before his first day on the job in 2014.
“I think the first thing I will work on is to try and figure out what the community wants,” he said then. “I hear a lot of ideas about that, but I don’t think there is a process yet to set some marching orders.”
‘A good manager’
During his tenure in Belgrade, according to those interviewed for this story, Barkley has been an idea person, a hard worker, a financial expert, a shrewd negotiator in Helena, a visionary, and a guide, but none describe him as someone who laid down “marching orders.”
Nelson and Menicucci say he worked well with the council, and both she and Gee said he has always been willing to take the time to visit with people and hear them out.
“Several times when we were having coffee, people would come up and recognize him – he always made them feel welcome,” Gee said.
And when it came time to do business – well, Barkley was all business, Menicucci added.
“It’s how it’s supposed to work – the council directs the city manager, and if he had something to say and didn’t agree or wanted to add to what we were requesting, we listened to him to a person,” she said. “If we went ahead and asked him to do something, he would do it. That’s a good city manager.”
Barkley, too, says he has enjoyed his working relationships in Belgrade.
“The really nice thing about Belgrade is the council members can disagree and be very respectful at the same time,” he said. “You treasure it in the moment, because it isn’t always that way.
Barkley was able to enjoy that congeniality one last time during his final meeting as city manager on Oct. 4.
He remarked then that over the past 35 years, he has “attended 968 council meetings and this is the last one” – though he will attend the next one on Monday, where he officially will hand over the administrative reins to incoming City Manager Neil Cardwell.
His departure reminds Menicucci of his arrival, where at City Hall, the staff were still reeling from the death of her husband who had served as Belgrade’s beloved city manager for so long.
“It was hard for Ted walking into that, but as much as they loved Joe, Ted was the man,” she says now. “Everyone’s sorry to see him go.”