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City Manager Calls it a Day

Santa Clara City Manager Julio Fuentes resigned from his position as Santa Clara’s chief executive on Thursday, and says that his last day will be around the end of May. The reasons, says Fuentes, are personal and his relationship with the City Council remains cordial.

“I’ve run my race,” he says, “and I’m ready to pass the baton. I’ve had an incredible opportunity to do things I never had an opportunity to do before and I’m grateful. We’ll always look back fondly at our time in Santa Clara and I appreciate all the people who have been so great to me. I will always be a gigantic supporter.”

A native of Southern California, the 59 year-old Fuentes lived his entire life there with the exception of the last three years. Three generations of family, including two of his children, are there, as well as many close friends. “At heart I’m a Southern California boy,” he says.

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He has been a city manager in four California cities – Pomona, Azusa, Alhambra and Santa Clara – for a total of almost 30 years. Fuentes’ tenure as Santa Clara’s city manager came at a transformational point in the City’s history, and one that demanded the public administration equivalent of tightrope walking without a safety net.

Fuentes was hired by a unanimous vote of the City Council – Mayor Jamie Matthews and Council Members Lisa Gillmor, Will Kennedy, Patrick Kolstad, Patricia Mahan, Jamie McLeod and Kevin Moore.

One of Fuentes’ recommendations was his strategic focus on community development; which earned PublicCEO.com’s 2011 Official of the Year award. The organization recognized Fuentes’ key role in making Alhambra’s reputation as one of that region’s most business-friendly cities with a growing economy, a new community theatre, and fresh and appealing public art and street-scaping.

On his first day on the job in 2013, Fuentes faced a host of challenges, any one of which would constitute a fulltime job. Tackling them was a job that didn’t allow much time for personal or family life, or even rest.

For almost a decade, Santa Clara’s budget had been on a slide, following a tech bust, a real estate bust, and a changing economy. City departments faced budget and staffing cuts. Employees faced furloughs, with layoffs on the not-too-distant horizon. The City had a structural budget deficit and a nearly empty emergency reserve fund.

There was a looming battle over the assets of the shuttered redevelopment agency, and the real possibility that the City would lose millions in RDA lease revenues and hundreds of millions in city-owned real estate, including the Northside branch library and the Santa Clara Convention Center, with no money set aside to cover these claims if the City lost its case.

The City had also just embarked the previous April on the building of an estimated $1 billion football stadium, and the City Council had committed to a Super Bowl bid for the un-built stadium.

Three years later Fuentes will leave Santa Clara with over $50 million in emergency reserves, a balanced budget and a surplus, and significant new revenue from the development impact fees he proposed that will allow Santa Clara to start adding significantly to open space and parks in the City.

Levi’s Stadium was completed on schedule and about $200 million under budget. Last month Super Bowl 50 was an unqualified success – including a first-ever reimbursement for Super Bowl costs – and put Santa Clara on the world’s map. People know Silicon Valley, Fuentes says, but they don’t recognize the names of many of the region’s cities. “Santa Clara doesn’t have that problem any more.”

After almost five years, the RDA lawsuit was finally settled and the City retained the Northside library and the Convention Center. The City’s revenue growth, thanks to new development driving property tax revenue as well growing sales and hotel tax revenues, more than covers the lost RDA lease revenue.

But none of this comes without taking a physical toll on the City staff. Many cities alternate periods of intense and demanding change with periods of relative stasis, Fuentes says. But “Santa Clara is flat-lined at 100 mph every day. It’s physically tiring.

“We have so many incredibly talented staff people,” he continues. “Without doubt we’re operating at the level of a city that’s much larger because people are burning both ends against the middle. They are doing a Herculean job. But even Hercules gets worn out.”

Fuentes still has some projects on his list to be finished before he leaves.

One is the package the City Council needs before it can give a go-ahead to Related Companies’ proposed City Place Santa Clara retail, commercial and entertainment center on land that is currently the municipal golf course. “That project is incredibly important economically to the City,” he says.

Other jobs include the 2016-17 budget and Levi’s Stadium rent re-set (specified in the 2012 contract with the 49ers.)

“A lot of great decisions were made in the past,” Fuentes says. These decisions enabled Santa Clara to become the dynamic city it is today. These decisions are still being made by the City Council for the future. “But they’re also looking at how those decisions are going to be affect core services to residents. And that’s the appropriate way to go.”

What’s next for Fuentes? It may be retirement and coaching high school football – something he’s done in the past. It may another job in public administration – he has received offers, he says. “A lot of people tell me I should teach.”

For public officials looking to make their communities places people come to instead of being places they leave, Fuentes is their man.

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