Interview: City Manager Lorie Tinfow Discusses Her Priorities For Benicia
Lisa Duncan Photography
A decade older than most people in the room, Lorie Tinfow took a seat at Gunn High School in Palo Alto and opened the SAT test booklet.
Taking the college entrance exam in a room full of high school students was part of her plan to make big changes in her life. The journey eventually brought her to Benicia, where she became city manager in April.
Lorie married at 18, had a daughter at 20 and divorced at 24. She’d moved from a job at a drive-through photo booth to working as a secretary during those years. Along the way, she read books that she heard guests discussing on Phil Donahue’s talk show.
“I wanted to read those books and know what they were talking about,” recalls Lorie, now 56.
She also wanted to be more than a secretary. She took classes at a community college and transferred to Stanford in 1989.
“I was a 28-year-old sophomore with an 8-year-old daughter,” she says. “I wanted to teach middle-school math because I loved math.”
She took a class in her final term at Stanford that opened her eyes to another possibility: city management. She graduated in 1992 and opted for grad school because the economy was flagging at the time. She headed to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in city and regional planning with an emphasis on transportation in 1994.
Consulting jobs followed until Walnut Creek hired her as an administrative analyst in 1996. Her work since then has included stints as assistant city manager in Walnut Creek and Saratoga, and three years as city manager in Pacifica. As city manager in Benicia, she oversees an organization with a $40 million general fund and $70 million overall budget. The city has the equivalent of 223.5 full-time employees in addition to seasonal, part-time workers.
Lorie and her husband, Greg, live in Walnut Creek.
How did a class at Stanford change your career goals? I took a class from two city managers. They had us do a role-playing session where some of us were members of a city council who hired a city manager who had to put forward a budget. … I was hired as the city manager. I credit that experience with helping me see that this could be a good job for me.
What convinced you to apply for the city manager post in Benicia? In the ’80s and ’90s, my parents and my sister lived in Vallejo. I was in Walnut Creek, and we would meet here for the Fourth of July. Main Street wasn’t anything like it is now, but I remember thinking even then that Benicia had such a personality, such character. Not all places have that.
When the (city manager) job was open in 2010, I applied. I was one of the top applicants, but I didn’t get the job. So I learned more about the community then … and I’ve been keeping my eye on this place. They’ve done some really smart things here.
What smart moves has the city made? They took action to set aside money for reserves. Not every city does that.
There’s a trust between the city and residents, the recent water and sewer rate hike aside. They did a survey in 2014 that showed 90-95 percent of the residents were satisfied or very satisfied with the city.
The community passed a sales tax without an end date—that’s almost unheard of. They’ve done a good job with First Street. Turning the Arsenal into an artist enclave—that was very smart.
What is your top priority for the city? My major focus is on the city’s finances. In February when the council approved my contract, that same night they got a 10-year forecast and an actuarial forecast for city pensions. I stayed for the meeting and thought the city would be OK for two years. That gave us time to look at the financial challenges and figure out what to do.
I learned on May 10, when I got updated numbers, that the challenge is now. So I shifted gears and my focus is on getting us to the next two-year budget and to be in a stable position. We were able to balance the current budget because of one-time income of about $2 million. …
I want to focus more on what to do in the future rather than figuring out what happened in the past. I’m piecing together information on what’s happening, and we’ll take that information to departments, then the (city) boards and commissions, then the community.
What other challenges does the city face? We have an issue with employee retention. The city made decisions in the past—decisions that had to be made at that time—about compensation reductions, freezing positions. We’ve had 10 years without growth (in incomes), so people are coming here but they not staying. Also, some are retiring. … I can’t build momentum when we have a lot of turnover.
What can residents expect to see from city government in 2018? We’ll have the outcome of the cannabis discussion and likely a ballot measure for taxes if the council decides to do that. … I know it seems like nothing to some people, but to us, it seems like a very big deal.
We’re also working on the marina lease. Right now we are making payments on a bond and the lease payments to us don’t quite cover that. The new financial director and I are looking at that, trying to determine if we can restructure that at a lower interest rate so the bond payments and income from the lease are closer together.
What do you like best about being a city manager? I like having the ability to make a difference in people’s lives, whether they know it or not. It could be something like improving the street paving schedule. In Pacifica, I worked to improve the tsunami warning signal location.
I like hiring good people—that’s really exciting. I like helping the council wade through a difficult situation and come to a good outcome. …
One of the interesting things about my job is so many people have something they want to tell me, whether it’s history or gossip or things they think I should know.
What do residents need to understand about the city government? There are limits. The people who work at the city want to be responsive. I’ve seen people go to extremes to do that, and it’s great to see. On the other hand, there are some expectations we just can’t meet sometimes.
The community feels we’re going to do things in a certain way, and it is not always feasible. We’re all in this together—we all have a role to play in making things work.
What do you do to relax? I like to spend time with my granddaughter, and I’m a photographer. I like to take travel pictures, pictures of people, portraits (pointing to a photo she took of an Italian street scene that hangs on her office wall). Greg & I like to travel. Hopefully we’ll get to Italy next year.