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Madison Heights

February 22, 2013

City Manager Jon Austin retires after serving Madison Heights for 21 years

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
The Madison Heights staff gathers for a photo with the departing city manager. Top row, from left: Roslyn Yerman, library director; Marilyn Haley, city clerk; Melissa Marsh, assistant city manager; Ben Myers, deputy city manager; Jon Austin, city manager, retiring Feb. 28; Kathy Vesprini, executive assistant; Amy Misczak, human resource director. Bottom row, from left: Greg Lelito, fire chief; Jim Schafer, community development director; Larry Sherman, city attorney; Gary Fiscus, MIS administrator; and Anthony Roberts, police chief.

MADISON HEIGHTS — By the end of the week, Madison Heights City Manager Jon Austin will have retired from his position of 21 years, the longest tenure of anyone to hold the position in the history of Madison Heights. 

A distance runner who aims to finish a marathon in all 50 states, Austin’s career has likewise moved at a quick and steady pace, never slowing since his college days.

Retirement, he said, will mean a change of pace.

“In this new chapter of my life, I hope to have more time for family, for faith activities, and for service, giving back on a voluntary basis,” Austin said. “I plan to take some time off. I’ve never been out of a job. I’ve been fortunate; I’ve been blessed.”

Austin grew up in Owosso, a small town of about 15,000 between Lansing and Flint. His father was a county extension agent, helping farmers develop and prosper. In a sense, Austin’s father was his first exposure to local government.

His mother, meanwhile, was a homemaker. She had her hands full; Austin was the fourth of six children — three boys and three girls.  

Graduating from the Owosso High Class of 1976, Austin began pursuing his bachelor of business administration at Eastern Michigan University, double-majoring in business management and public administration.

He was also a scholarship football player all four years at EMU, a 260-pound defensive lineman who could bench-press more than 300 pounds. He was honored for his academic achievement among the football team.

“My competitiveness and enjoyment of physical activities started when I was in third-grade and followed me through high school and college,” Austin said.

He took a career exploration class at EMU that determined city management would be a good fit for him.

“I wanted to get into some meaningful work, doing something for the community and giving back through the use of my skills I was developing,” Austin said.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980. By the end of the next year, he had his master of public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, one of the nation’s top city management programs.

Austin got married between his graduate and undergraduate years, and promised his wife that, if his public administration career didn’t work out, he’d go back into business.

In 1982, he began work as a supervisor/analyst for the budget and research division of San Antonio. After five years there, he returned to Michigan, where he became the city manager of Garden City in 1987, at age 29. After another five years, he moved to Madison Heights and became city manager in 1992, at age 34. 

Today, Austin and his wife have two daughters, both recently married, and a son finishing his junior year at Michigan State. His son was born the same year he became city manager of Madison Heights, where Austin continues to live today.

“I feel good where we are as a community,” Austin said. “We’re in a good position to be successful in the future.”

Years of progress
The city manager forms policy options for the mayor and City Council, recommends which policies to pursue and oversees the day-to-day operations of city departments.

Given this role, Austin has had a hand in shaping many developments in the city of Madison Heights for the last 21 years. He had his work cut out for him from the start.

“It was an economic downturn, not as serious as now, but there were challenges right off the bat,” Austin said. “The city’s budget was balanced with the use of over $1 million of fund balance in 1992, and it was a much smaller budget back then, so it was a very substantial reliance on fund balance.”

Austin continually downsized the city’s workforce, motivated mainly by efficiency the first 15 years, and more recently by declining state revenues. In 1992, the city had 251 full-time employees and 203 part-time employees; today, the city has 155 full-timers and 138 part-timers.

Under Austin, the nature center, fire station headquarters, police prisoner security tunnel and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) clock tower were built. The library and district court were renovated and expanded. Infrastructure improved with two 10-year residential neighborhood road improvement programs, as well as the sidewalk program. The recreational vehicle lot was reconstructed, Civic Center Plaza was overhauled and a new automatic water meter reading system was installed.

Both Rosie’s Park and Friendship Woods expanded. Monroe Park and the Red Oaks Youth Soccer Complex were built from scratch. Also, the city established a parks improvement and maintenance fund to provide for future upgrades.

Two 10-year vehicle replacement programs were implemented, and advanced life support paramedic service was brought to the Fire Department. The Police Department joined numerous regional task forces and started special units, such as the K-9 unit.

“In the business sector, the two things I’m most proud of is the creation of the DDA, and the Economic Development program,” Austin said. He also took pride working with former Councilwoman Marilyn Russell to start the city’s Community Family Coalition, and working with Councilwoman Margene Scott on her Heritage Rooms project.

The city’s Employee Wellness Program has had a profound impact on the lives of staff members who voluntarily participate, Austin said, with a dozen staffers losing 30 pounds or more, including several who lost more than 100 pounds. The Healthy Heights 5k Run is an extension of this to the community.

All department heads are now required to have at least a college degree, and ongoing education is expected. The city has also formed many partnerships, documenting more than 80 as part of their reporting for the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive Plan funding. 

One such deal is the recent 25-year lease agreement with Oakland County Parks, securing the newly-named Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods.

The city also worked with the Water Resources Commissioner (WRC) to purchase land from the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, redeveloping it into the Red Oaks Golf Course.

Another WRC venture involved the WRC paying for the reconstruction of the recreational vehicle lot, in exchange for the city allowing them to stockpile dirt while they constructed the George W. Kuhn Drain Retention Treatment Facility. 

Much has been accomplished with Austin’s input, but he’s quick to note that it was a team effort between him, staff, and the mayor and council who approved every action.

“What the city has accomplished is not one individual’s work, and certainly not my accomplishment alone, but what we do as a group,” Austin said. “My key role in that is to recruit the best people possible, retain them working for us so they don’t go work for someone else, and give them the tools and motivation and direction to be successful.

“Our employees, in my opinion, are devoted, talented, hardworking, loyal and very committed to this city, and we especially see that with our department heads,” Austin said. “Without these employees, we wouldn’t be where we are today as an organization.”

Moving forward
Mayor Pro Tem Robert Corbett joined council in November 1999, and has respected Austin ever since.

“He has been a consummate professional,” Corbett said. “One of the really unique things I most appreciated about Jon is, even when we would have disagreements, and over the years we’ve had more than our share, the fact was, the next day, the slate was clean, and we picked up right where we left off. He never held a grudge, and he would always be willing to engage council in discussion.

“Whenever new members of council have come on after me, I’ve always made a point of saying to them that, when they hear from Jon an opinion they don’t agree with or didn’t want, remember that Jon’s opinion is not based on immediate circumstances, but the impact of council’s decision looking weeks, months, years down the road,” he said. “And I think his vision has been one of his most important contributions — that, and his financial acumen.”

The task now falls to Austin’s successor, Ben Myers, the current deputy city manager, selected by City Council last November to be city manager starting March 1.

“I’ve worked with Ben for many years,” Austin said. “He will do a fantastic job.”

With his days as city manager at an end, Austin is looking forward to enjoying Madison Heights in a way he was never able to previously: purely as a resident.

“Madison Heights is a special place, and what makes it special is the people,” Austin said. “We’ve got great volunteers; we’ve got great organizations. We have a good business community, and close to my heart, of course, are the city staff and council. They all make this a special place.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.