Gilbert Town Manager George Pettit announced his retirement Thursday after eight years on the job.
Gilbert Town Manager George Pettit announced his retirement Thursday after eight years in that job and almost 25 years working for the municipality.
His departure comes in the midst of one of the most serious budget crises the town has seen as money that came with explosive growth slowed to a trickle and sales tax receipts stalled with the state's ongoing economic weakness.
His departure also comes after some mixed performance evaluations and complaints from some council members, who said Pettit didn't provide all of the financial information they are asking for.
Pettit's retirement is effective in August, and March 1 will be his last day. He will be available as a consultant for the town while using accumulated time off.
Pettit said in an interview Thursday that he will qualify to retire under the statewide retirement system in July. He said he came to the council with the idea of stepping aside this spring.
"This is the first decision I had to make for me, which made it even more interesting, and the council has been tremendously supportive of me in allowing me to go forward with this decision. And it all came together fairly quickly," he said.
Gilbert Fire Chief Collin DeWitt will serve as the interim town manager while a national search for a replacement is conducted. Assistant fire chief Jim Jobusch will, in turn, take over the helm of the fire department.
Pettit, 57, came to Gilbert as an assistant town manager in 1985, when the town had just over 12,000 residents; there are now about 220,000.
The rapid growth lead to flush times that recently came to a grinding halt.
The Town Council voted on Tuesday to hold a special election May 18 to seek voter approval of a quarter-cent sales tax increase, earmarked for public safety costs. Pettit and others on the town's financial team are projecting a general fund shortfall of $15 million for the fiscal year that will begin July 1, and further deficits averaging around $14 million over the following four years. Pettit said it was his decision to leave, and the stress of maneuvering the current budget process was not a particularly strong factor.
He said his biggest accomplishments as town manager include building on regional partnerships with neighboring cities, as well as building on predecessor Kent Cooper's initiatives to create a less hierarchical structure at Town Hall.
"We wanted to be able to build a 21st-century management organization for the town, and we were able to do that," Pettit said.
Gilbert is known for having one of the leanest municipal employee ranks for a community of its size, but steep drops in local tax revenue and state-shared funding could easily force more cuts. The sales tax hike, if approved by voters, is expected to raise less than $7 million annually for the general fund, which funds daily operations for police, fire, parks and most other town departments.
Town Councilman Dave Crozier said Gilbert needs to reinvent itself for the new economic realities expected over the next several years. And it will likely be in a way that could be hard on veteran workers.
"That's a painful process for a leader, to look forward and say, 'wow, there's going to be a lot of changes here,'" Crozier said.
Pettit is widely respected for his knowledge of municipal finances and willingness to put in very long hours on the job. But he received mixed reviews in two recent quarterly performance evaluations done by Town Council members and his immediate subordinates.
At recent council meetings, Pettit and his staff had been subject to some criticism from council members over not providing all of the information they had asked for while sifting through reams of revenue reports and recommendations from the Citizens Budget Committee.
Councilman Steve Urie was the source of some of that criticism. But on Thursday he praised Pettit for his work ethic and financial knowledge.
"George is an excellent small-town manager or an assistant town manager/finance director, because he is very, very good with numbers. That's his personality," Urie said. "When Kent Cooper was here we could play good cop, bad cop with them because George had the numbers."
Urie was on the council during Gilbert's last search for a town manager, which took about six months and led to hiring Pettit from within the ranks. Urie said DeWitt was tapped as interim manager for his success at running the fire department and to not give one of the town's two assistant managers an advantage over the other if they choose to apply for the job.
Pettit's base annual salary is $175,000, not including benefits or his car allowance. Besides his work for Gilbert he is active in several professional organizations, including the Arizona City/County Management Association, and he said he hopes to remain involved with them in some fashion.
He said he and his wife, Diane, plan to remain in Gilbert, where their two grown children and 16-month-old grandson also live. Beyond that, he's not sure what else retirement has in store for him, he said.
"Unfortunately, one of the things I can't do very well is plan," he said.