Next month the City of Santa Clara will say farewell to a dedicated employee who helped steer the City through some of its most ambitious ventures and most challenging times. Santa Clara Director of Finance Gary Ameling has accepted a position working for the city of Las Vegas.
When Ameling came to Santa Clara, he inherited a structural deficit budget and a reserve fund full of mostly moths. He leaves a balanced budget and about $55 million in reserves.
“He played an instrumental role in reconstructing our budget,” said Council Member Teresa O’Neill.
That freed up money to address critical needs like roads and park maintenance improvements and filling essential staff positions in City Hall that had been frozen, she continued. “He started making the hard decisions to get our budget back in balance. He found ways to start reinvesting again in capital improvements such as libraries.”
Ameling is quick to give credit to others and reluctant to take it himself. He credits city staffers for their determined effort tracking and managing city costs and revenue. But his subdued style helped bring everyone together to address the challenges.
When he arrived in 2010, Ameling’s first challenge was the City’s $25 million structural budget deficit. “I’m proud of the way all the City departments came together,” he said. “Working closely with the City Manager’s office, a team of dedicated department heads and managers, and each of the City’s bargaining units, we were able to reduce expenditures, enhance revenues and balance the budget–without any significant cuts in services.”
These efforts yielded enough in ongoing annual savings for the city in addition to the healthy growth in City revenues from new revenue generated by development and the opening of Levi’s Stadium, as well as a recovering economy.
During his tenure Ameling helped refinance library and police station construction bonds, which yielded additional savings for the City’s general fund. The budget restructuring also helped the city keep its high bond rating, which will continue to benefit the City with lower borrowing costs.
He also worked passionately to preserve the City’s RDA-held assets after Gov. Jerry Brown and the California legislature voted to dissolve California’s redevelopment agencies.
“It’s not true that the RDA was taking money away from the agencies at this dais,” he said in 2012 at one of the many contentious meetings of the board charged with unwinding redevelopment activities. “Rather, it was generating future income for the taxing entities later on in their lives. Those agreements helped to foster economic development.”
The state court ruled against Santa Clara, and the city lost a lot of Northside real estate as a result. But Ameling helped negotiate agreements with the county that preserved City ownership of the Northside library, will allow Santa Clara to retain ownership of its convention center, and provided credits to the City that reduced the impact of the losses on the general fund.
Further, Ameling’s leadership in restructuring the budget, said O’Neill, cushioned the impact on city services of losing $13 million in annual RDA property lease revenue.
Ameling says he’s especially grateful to Santa Clara for the opportunity to be part of the team negotiating the Levi’s Stadium deal.
“That’s not a project that most city finance directors have the opportunity to work on,” he said. “I think we have the best stadium deal of any city in the country. No general fund tax money was used in the construction of the stadium. The project came in on time and $136 million under budget–at $879 million.
“Non-NFL events have generated more revenue than expected,” he continued. “The Stadium Authority not only met its non-NFL income targets, the City’s general fund has received millions in performance rent and millions more in sales, property and hotel tax.” In the 2015-16 fiscal year, Levi’s Stadium delivered $3.8 million directly to Santa Clara’s general fund.
Growing revenues and budget surpluses will enable the city to start addressing one of its long-standing finance problems: its $400 million unfunded pension liability. Before he leaves, Ameling will present a blueprint for a new pension trust fund that will enable Santa Clara to pay down its CalPERS unfunded liability.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said O’Neill. But recognition by the city of this serious problem, and this first step will help the city turn the corner, she said.
“I’ve enjoyed the seven years working for the city,” Ameling said. “We’ve accomplished a lot during the time I’ve been here. I’m so grateful to the all the City’s department managers and the talented and dedicated finance department employees.”
Ameling grew up in North Branford Conn., a small town outside New Haven, and got his BS and MBA from Northern Arizona University.
After 13 years working for the City of Bellevue, Wash.–first as a senior budget analyst and subsequently as assistant finance director and interim finance director–he became director of administrative services and finance for La Mesa Calif., where he worked for seven years.
In 2015, Ameling received the Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Public Sector CFO award. He also has served as president of the League of California Cities’ Fiscal Officers group, and has received the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers’ Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting every year he’s worked in Santa Clara.
Not all Ameling’s numbers are on spreadsheets. One number that’s very important to him is his golf handicap. Before going to work for Bellevue, Ameling took a two-year sabbatical from finance to play golf professionally.
“This was a chance to see how good I could get,” Ameling said, “and not be looking back on what I might have done. It was an experience I was glad to have.” A back injury has kept him off the golf course in recent years. “My back is older than my mind,” he said.