Ketchikan’s new City of Ketchikan and Ketchikan Public Utilities Manager Delilah Walsh is on the job, setting goals, absorbing information and quickly adapting to the Southeast Alaska way of life.
She spoke about her journey from her life and career in New Mexico to her position in Ketchikan with the Daily News in her sunny office in City Hall this past week.
She said she had worked as the county manager for Socorro, New Mexico and was most recently the utilities director for the city of Las Cruces. She said that when she saw the Ketchikan manager job description, she and her husband Dennis immediately realized it was a perfect fit for her.
“That was what was interesting about the original recruitment,” she said. “When I shared with my husband, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been a manager and I’ve been a utilities director — it’s kind of prepping for this job — how interesting!”
She said that at the time she wasn’t actually seeking a new job position.
“I was very happy with my position in Las Cruces,” she said, adding that she also had a great staff.
“Honestly, I thought I’d be retiring from there, from the City of Las Cruces,” she said. “And, my career path was possibly to move into an assistant manager position … I was really happy as utilities director. It was a great department.”
The department worked with a $250 million budget, and she managed 300 employees.
She said that she and her husband had been missing the smaller size of the town of Socorro during the time they lived in Las Cruces, so Ketchikan’s size was appealing. The outdoor recreation opportunities in the Ketchikan area also were attractive to her husband, she said.
Walsh added, “My big draw was, ‘Look, you get to do both things — city manager and utilities director, because I really am — I love utilities. I was really loving that part of my job, and this had the opportunity to get back into actual organizational management as well as still operating with utilities and working in that world.”
She said of the City of Ketchikan, “how many services this city offers is astounding, and very rare. … Very few municipalities run a power company, and the ones that do don’t also run museums and libraries and things like that.”
She added, “As an organization, the career part was very attractive and interesting to me, because there’s so many different aspects of this city as an organization and the services they provide to citizens, so for me that was a big draw.”
When they flew into Ketchikan from New Mexico for interviews in June, Walsh said, they were positively impressed in another way. It was about 108 degrees in New Mexico when they’d left.
“We were kind of baking in the sun and then we came here and it was beautiful weather. I think it was 68 degrees, we got a couple of sunny days, it was really gorgeous,” she said.
Another delightful discovery in Ketchikan was how friendly the community members were.
When she attended the public forum for the finalist City manager candidates, she described that as having a “great vibe.”
She spent her time in town talking with business owners, museum staff and retail shop staff and said, “everybody was so incredibly hospitable and helpful and friendly and positive and talking about the community and activities that happen when the season’s over, as far as the community sort of coming in on itself — so it was just such a great community vibe.”
Walsh said, “Between the weather and the people and the opportunities”, she was very glad she had pursued the job opening, adding “It felt like a good fit.”
She then spoke about how she has approached her first weeks in the city/KPU manager position. She officially started her job in the first week of October.
Her first task was to meet with her leadership team — the city's department heads — and to ask them to share what’s important to them.
“What’s funny is I had a list of my values and what was important to me, and pretty much everybody hit on the same thing, and so the culture here, as far as being contributive to our citizens and being a part of Ketchikan and wanting to make a difference and wanting to do good for others — all that was coming out in the department heads,” she said. “That was a great affirmation that we made a good decision, because the culture already existed.”
Her favorite part of the job so far, Walsh said, has been “the people and meeting the staff, because I know we’ve been through a lot, we’ve been through collective bargaining agreements, we have some challenges with staff.
“We’ve lost a lot of staff to competing organizations or retirements and so I know they’re going through a lot, just looking at it on paper,” she added. “There’s a lot of vacancies, there’s a lot of challenges, there’s regulatory challenges, but all the staff members have been really incredible and I think the way I can describe that is, everybody I’ve worked with thus far, they truly show that heart of service, and not just in their job, but in what they do in addition to their job — whether that be supporting other staff members or coming in when there’s nobody else that can do it, or what they do to volunteer in the community. We have a lot of coaches and referees and people like that who just give of themselves.”
She said, “That heart of service culture is already here.”
Challenges for the city that she said she is focusing on is cleaning up the policies and the budget.
She outlined some of her main goals.
She plans to schedule a work session with the City Council, hopefully in January, she said.
Her mission in the work session she said, will be to identify, “What are your values? What’s your mission?”
She said, “I can’t even turn the ship right now, until I know which direction we’re supposed to go.”
The main point of identifying those values and that mission is “that’s where you put your money and your resources,” she said.
“We need to know what the Council feels before we can start making proposals,” she explained.
Walsh said she also plans to write more policies through her office.
As an example, she said, “I think our investment policy is from 1982.”
She said there also is no tax policy for the city, although the Council has been working to improve the tax structure through the recent seasonal tax raise and has been discussing exempting rentals from the seasonal tax.
She explained that “most tax policy does outline: We have certain regression expectations, we want to know what revenue impact is going to look like; it’s all outlined for you.”
She added as an example of a guideline, “‘We only discuss taxes in these parts of the year,’ in order to give voters and budget planners and everybody else time to implement. There’s nothing laid out, so we need to do that.”
The city also has no budget policy, Walsh said, so she plans to work on creating one.
“We have a fund balance policy saying, you know, ‘we want to have three months of reserve or four months of reserve of our expenses in reserves,’ but we don’t have a formal fund balance policy that, you know, ‘when it hits this level, it triggers Y behaviors,’” she said, “and we have to be able to be, in our budget policy, flexible, so if I see a decline in tourism-related activities, what are the first services that are going to be cut?”
She said that a formal policy will allow city staff to know, “What are my triggers? How am I going to react? What services are critical? What services are not?”
Walsh added, “Everything the city does is important to its citizens, but there are things that really are critical.”
She also explained that “by identifying it ahead of time, if we get into those situations — we don’t have to keep coming back to council to have that deliberation. It gives me pretty much my marching orders of how I need to handle it.”
She said, “I can tell you a hundred different ways to save money or to cut, what to promote, whatever, but that’s out of my opinion as a manager — not meeting the objectives of the council.”
Another goal that Walsh said she is working toward is “rate education and utility management economics.”
Educating staff and Council members in those areas will allow them to set rates for enterprise funds like electricity, water and harbors in a structured, knowledgeable way, she said. Right now, she is working to find consultants to come to town to teach that curriculum.
“I can’t propose a rate process to the community or to the council until we educate everybody on what the economic theory is and how the business works, and how you run a utility business,” Walsh said.
She added, “There’s actual economic theory tied to every kind of utility.”
The education is crucial, she explained, because when administrators start to make proposals and policies and do community outreach to get citizen input, “we have to know what we’re talking about, and we have to know that X results in Y and one can mean two, and we have to have that all ready to communicate to our community as well as to the Council.”
Walsh also described what she’s seen as additional challenges in her new position.
“Coming up to speed in what’s different with law for Alaska and ordinances that are a bit different for this city,” Walsh said. “Most cities that are home-rule, it’s pretty consistently the same setup and the same expectations and the same policies and things like that.”
One thing that’s been quite different for her, Walsh said, is that compared to New Mexico, “Alaska is very low on the statute side, so in other words, you can tell that they are not big on having government tell you what to do.”
A much smaller challenge, but one she has had to work through, is simply finding the documents and items that she’s needed to get up to speed on the job.
Walsh then summarized her focus and goals.
“I think, on my part, it’s just a matter of finding the direction from the Council, and then applying my efforts and resources to meet that and get there,” she said, “because we will have to do a strategic business plan, you can’t change your direction every time a new Council comes in — that’s such a waste of taxpayer resources, and so, we’ll get there.
“Right now,” she continued, “we can’t do it tomorrow, because that’s something you want to have community input for, you want to have stakeholder input, you want to talk to your citizens, your residents, your taxpayers and really understand, make sure that this is where we’re going and so that’s going to be a long process.”
She added, “To do it right, you have to not only do the plan, but then you have to have your performance measures and then you have to tie your budget to those performance measures — putting the money in the right place to achieve that objective and these goals and that’s a whole process. That means you have to restructure your budgets in order to measure it.”
Walsh said she is looking forward to working on those plans, “because I get to be part of that process and really say, ‘This is where we’re going. We’re going to make a difference.”
Walsh added, “Ketchikan is not Socorro, it’s not Las Cruces, it’s not New Mexico, it’s not even Juneau. We have a completely different need and different skill set than everybody else, and so I really have to come up to speed first before I can even propose any changes or suggestions.”
After meeting one-on-one with each City Council member, Walsh said she found that “they’re all very focused on ‘how do we come together and come to consensus on that direction and come to consensus on what we want to do moving forward?’ That’s really positive. That they want to be transparent, they want to be involved, they want to be good stewards.”
She said she is aware of the challenges that the city faces right now, such as the lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living, and is eager to work on easing those.
When asked what she enjoys doing in her spare time, Walsh said, “I like crafting. I’m looking forward to the dark days and staying inside. My husband’s the outdoor person.”
She added, with a grin, “I’m the reluctant outdoor person, so they drag me everywhere.”
Her husband’s “big passion,” she said, is coaching and working with kids outside. He’s coached several sports, including soccer, golf and volleyball. She said that he now is working for the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as the drug prevention coordinator.
She said her favorite crafts have been creating items with her Cricut machine and creating T-shirt designs and cards as well as quilts.
She explained why she has found quilting to be such a draw for her.
“I had to focus on the quilting, so I had to stop thinking about everything else, and it came to be sort of a zen moment for me where I could let go of all the things I had to do and the tasks list and everything running through my head and have that moment of quiet, because I had to focus, I had to make sure everything was aligned and I couldn’t think about 20 different things like how I normally function, and it’s really a calming hobby for me, where I have to look at the detail and focus on that.”
While quilting, Walsh said, “the pieces were so little, and I had to measure, and be accurate, and iron and you know, make everything come together and to fit perfectly. I had to disengage, so it was really a great thing for me on my mental health.”
She has now finished two “huge” quilts, and said she is excited to do more quilting here in Ketchikan.
While being interviewed for the job, Walsh said that the dark, rainy weather was mentioned as a potential challenge and she said she answered, “I’m fine. I’ll sit inside all day sewing.”
When asked if anything about living in Ketchikan had surprised her, she chuckled and answered, “The studded tires was new for me. I’ve never had a studded tire before.”
Walsh said she has always lived in the Rio Grande corridor in New Mexico
“My family was a farming family, so we grew up on the river valley,” she said.
When asked what her favorite parts of living in Ketchikan had been so far, she was enthusiastic.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous here, even with the cold and the rain, it’s still a beautiful environment and there’s lots to do and lots to explore,” she said, but added with a smile, “I’m looking forward to when it’s not as cold.”
Another really nice feature of living here has been her daughter’s positive experiences as a seventh grader at Schoenbar Middle School.
“The kids have been so good and welcoming to her, being a new kid,” Walsh said.
Her daughter had been a bit anxious about moving to a new town and a new school. Walsh said that her own worry had been that there wouldn’t be enough activities or resources for her daughter in a town as small as Ketchikan.
She said that however, “The teachers, the kids, they’ve all been really helpful and welcoming, so that’s been my favorite part as a mom, that I know she’s ok, and there’s a lot to do for the kids, so that’s really impressive — how much goes on at the Rec Center, what the schools are doing, RYC with their after-school activities.”
Another aspect of living in Ketchikan that Walsh said has been great is, “I don’t have to fight traffic. My commute’s not 30 minutes anymore in traffic.”
Even finding their rental house went smoothly, finding the perfect place through word-of-mouth, and finding a helpful and flexible landlord.
“I really am happy to be here,” Walsh said, “and every time I have an interaction with something with either the city or with people out in Ketchikan, it’s all been affirming — like every time, I told Dennis — ‘this is so great.’”