While Collin DeWitt was immersed in the arduous, stressful process of helping put together a 2010-11 budget for the town of Gilbert, it would have been easy to wonder what he had gotten himself into.
When asked just that, however, DeWitt is quick to correct.
"I didn't get myself into it," he said. "I was asked by the (Town) Council."
And his work has been satisfactory enough that the 61-year-old, named interim town manager in February, was given a one-year contract last month, extending his tenure until a search for a permanent replacement commences. For the remainder of his term, DeWitt will grapple with the same issues Gilbert faced while putting together its most recent budget.
"Things haven't changed a lot from what we just went through," DeWitt said. "We still have quite a shortfall, if the projections stay the same."
Gilbert, which has about 220,000 residents and 1,200 employees, faces a projected annual deficit of $10 million to $16 million for at least the next four years.
That is a raging budget blaze - but a fitting endeavor for DeWitt, who took an unlikely route to the town manager position, with a decade of service as Gilbert's fire chief. (A month after DeWitt was chosen in Gilbert, Colorado Springs, Colo., tabbed its fire chief as interim city manager.)
DeWitt's leadership skills made him an attractive choice for the Town Council, Vice Mayor Les Presmyk said.
"That sounds like a big change, but it's still using what Collin is really good at," Presmyk said. "In department after department, his management style is something that was respected throughout the town.
"We knew what we were getting. He brought the direction we were hoping for."
The numbers crunching has been a team effort, DeWitt said.
"There are good leaders among the town staff. I haven't been alone," DeWitt said. "It's much more difficult than running a department, but it has a lot of the same elements. I'm not going to ever say I'm sorry I came over to do this, but it is consuming."
In June, the Town Council approved a $504 million budget package for fiscal 2010-11, avoiding layoffs - although some vacant positions will remain unfilled - and service cuts. After town voters rejected a .25 percent city sales tax increase in May, Gilbert balanced the budget by using more than $7 million in savings-fund transfers.
The town has more than $20 million remaining in savings funds that can be used to address future shortfalls, but town officials want to limit future use of what DeWitt called Gilbert's financial "shock absorber."
The other options? Well, something people typically do not like talking about.
"We have to find new money, but it probably can't sound like a tax," DeWitt said. "That's the conundrum we're in, and we'll have to work diligently with the council and have another citizens' group to provide input. But at some point, you have to turn the screws down and find something new. It's a challenge ...
"You can keep dipping into the reserve funds until they're gone, and some cities have done just that. But you put yourself on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, where you have to make layoffs and other moves."
A financial analysis of town departments and services will be presented on Aug. 12, and a planning workshop is on Aug. 20-21. Both functions are at Gilbert Town Hall, 50 E. Civic Center Drive, and open to the public.
DeWitt received a salary bump to $175,000 when the Town Council extended his tenure. But he indicated no desire to remain as manager and will eventually return as fire chief.
"I'll do the Council's bidding for the time being, and when (the term) ends, they'll put me back where I was, and I'll be fine," DeWitt said. "That's the agreement we have.
"One can never predict the future, but that's how I feel now."