Delilah Walsh, whom the Ketchikan City Council on Saturday selected as the new manager of the City of Ketchikan and Ketchikan Public Utilities, provided details of her background and her managerial experience and style during an approximately hour-long interview with the council and mayor early Saturday afternoon.
Each council member and Mayor Dave Kiffer had two prepared questions that they asked all four of the final candidates. In addition, each candidate gave an opening statement, and was able to ask one question of the council and mayor.
Walsh described how she grew up in a farming family, the daughter of a mechanic in the small town of Socorro, New Mexico.
According to her resume, she graduated from Socorro High School in 1992, and then attended the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology in Socorro, earning a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis in psychology, and Masters of Engineering Management.
While at the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, she worked as a teller at a local bank, which launched an approximately 15-year career in banking during which Walsh rose to the level of vice president of First State Bank in Socorro.
In January 2009, she switched to local government. The County of Socorro — which has a population of about 18,000 people and covers and area of about 6,600 miles — was facing financial difficulties with a million-dollar general-fund deficit, reduced working hours for staff, a four-year lag in audits, and fraud that resulted in jail time for a few people.
She said that a group of newly elected country commissioners asked her to serve as county manager.
“The county was pretty much a financial mess, and that's why I was brought in,” Walsh told the Ketchikan City Council.
Walsh served in the county manager position for more than a decade, ending in 2020.
“When I left the county, we had won audit awards; we’d won small county budget awards,” she said. “I left the county with a nine-month reserve in the general fund and a three-month reserve in all our other sub funds. We had increased employee wages by an average of 18%. By the time I had left, we really (had) right-sized a lot of it.”
She added that she’d also been involved in the building of a new jail with bond debt that did not increase local property taxes.
Although she wasn’t looking for a change, she became the assistant utilities director and interim director of the City of Las Cruses, New Mexico. She has served as the utilities manager of Las Cruces since October of 2020.
“I moved on to Las Cruces because it was a new challenge,” Walsh said on Saturday. “I'd been offered several jobs in other counties in New Mexico. I really didn't want to fix another (county), but Las Cruces offered the opportunity to really get into the utilities management. And that's why I left that job, to move on into Las Cruces.”
During a community forum event on Friday evening at the Ted Ferry Civic Center, the candidates were asked by audience member Stephen Bradford about what most intrigued them about the Ketchikan position.
Walsh responded that she agreed with statements from two of the other candidates about the wide variety of candidates that the City of Ketchikan and KPU are involved with.
“The incredible amount of services that the city offers as an organization is what was most appealing about this position — and when I saw that, that's what really had me apply,” Walsh said.
On the personal side, Walsh said that she and her husband currently live in a city of about 100,000 people. She noted that her husband also works in the downtown area, and doesn’t like the traffic, sirens, etc.
“We really do miss our small hometown and that sense of community and that sense of togetherness and, sort of being in your isolated neighborhood,” Walsh said. “And I do, too. I miss a lot of that hometown feel and Ketchikan has that, as well as challenges on the career side of having so many diverse services under one organization. This really is unusual for municipal government.”
The City of Ketchikan’s recruitment materials highlighted the development the implementation of strategic planning as one of the key priorities for the municipal government. Other top priorities are long-term financial planning addressing aging infrastructure, workforce planning and dealing with regulatory requirements for wastewater treatment.
On the KPU side, key priorities are long-term financial planning, addressing aging infrastructure and standardizing policies, procedures and protocols, and handling regulatory requirements regarding water filtration.
A council question focused on the candidates’ near-term strategic planning priorities.
Walsh started with the utilities.
“We really need to sit down as a council and set up our rate-review process,” Walsh said. “And we really need to look at utility rates, how we review those and what our time cycles are going to be. Are we considering the future of our infrastructure, as well as operations and management?”
She said that the worst thing for the council to do is simply say that more money is needed.
“That’s not what we need to do,” Walsh said. “We need to have a valid rate setting process for all the utilities — not just power, but for everything. What that does is ensure that you are operating efficiently and you're replacing infrastructure in the right time. And ... you have to have a plan for that. When we don't have a plan and we don't have a direction, we're reactive, and that's expensive to be reactive.”
On the general government side, Walsh on Saturday touched on a topic that she had raised during the Friday community forum.
Responding to a question about Ketchikan’s biggest challenge, Walsh had focused on affordable housing.
“I see the biggest challenge right now, (is) affordable housing in Ketchikan,” Walsh said Friday. “We can recruit several workers, but where are they gonna live? We can diversify our economy. We can increase types of businesses on the island, but where are those workers going to live?
“So I think that's going to be one of the primary objectives of your strategic plan, or even your master planning, is how do we get an affordable housing directive or project going within the island. Because that's going to be your first item to address before you can even start recruiting workers or start recruiting new businesses. Because if I want you to open (a business) on the island of Ketchikan I need to make it an incentive for you. I need to make sure that ... my site is the absolute best — that's not only for your company, but for the employees that are going to come with it. So I think affordable housing needs to be really, really high on that list.”
Walsh on Saturday reiterated her interest in pursuing affordable housing.
“Because that seems like a really big need there,” said Walsh. “But, in addition to that, we need to look at economic development, too. Have we taken advantage of USDA funds for economic development in order to set those plans in place?”
With strategic planning being “really key and necessary,” Walsh said that, “as far as one goal within strategic planning, I think affordable housing really is primary in what you need to look at today.”
She said that a good goal to accomplish by the end of one year would be to have at least the “bones” of a strategic plan in place. Regarding a goal for the first 100 days, Walsh named several items, focused mostly on learning facets of the city and utility.
“I would hope within the first 100 days, I've at least engaged with all the employees, and I have a very healthy understanding of your budget, your revenue streams, your debt service, and our financial planning, because that's going to be a primary factor for me to really understand the budget in finance — because we can't do anything if you don't have the money for it.
“... But personally, I hope that in the first hundred days I'm able to become part of the community,” she continued. “I think that the management of the city — you have an excellent assistant city manager (Lacey Simpson) who's done a great job (of) keeping you going, and you have great department heads. So I think personally, as far as really in those first three months, I really want to know that I've become a part of the Ketchikan community for myself and my family.”
Another council question asked whether Walsh would arrive in Ketchikan with big plans that she would want to implement right away.
Walsh, as did the other finalists, voiced a preference for learning first.
“I think it's more important for me to understand fully what operations are, what the budget situation is, what our funding situation is, and what's important to the council — you know, what are the goals and the priorities?” Walsh said. “For me to come in and just make changes without any of that background would be such a waste of resources and be a waste of staff time. It would be a waste of money, a waste of investment. So the first step really is to understand the organization, because what works for the City of Ketchikan is completely different (than what works) for the City of Las Cruces.”
Walsh also responded to a question about support for nonprofit organizations, saying that she appreciated the roles that nonprofits have in Ketchikan.
“The City of Los Cruces is the same way — we actually rely quite heavily on our nonprofits to deliver more of our human services when it comes to the actual public services. We've got that, but we rely on our nonprofits for human services. So we absolutely need to have a good relationship with those nonprofits.
“But you also have to be good stewards of the funds that you're distributing to those nonprofits,” Walsh continued. “So I would want to make sure that we have performance measures with the nonprofits. Are they actually providing the results that we're asking for and paying for? And it doesn't mean that we're challenging them or making it difficult on them. You have to be able to say, as stewards of the public dollar, these are the performance measures and the results that are being delivered through those nonprofit agencies.”
Walsh also responded to questions about the challenges that Ketchikan faces with a seasonal tourism economy, and about strategies for succession planning for municipal leadership roles. In addition, Walsh was asked about whether she would recommend that the council cut costs — or raise taxes and rates — if the city is facing a structural deficit.
Walsh highlighted her experience of dealing with the Socorro County deficit, and explained what her strategy would be for moving forward.
“The first thing I would do is ensure that are we being as absolutely efficient in every line of business and in every fund line item,” Walsh said. “Is there any waste that we can eliminate? That's really the first step. And in Socorro County, I went down to even renegotiating the mailing costs of our notices of value and our tax bills, where we were paying twice as much before ... I renegotiated that contract. I refinanced all our debt.”
She noted that Socorro County did have to raise a rate, but that was after going through the budget and making changes without hitting the employees’ pockets.
“So it was a matter of just going through every single (item) line by line to find those savings and cut costs first,” Walsh said, adding that there are hard decisions to be made.
“But if you have the data and the justification for it, it's something that we're just going to have to accept and work with our citizens to explain,” she said. “So the same thing with (utility) rate reviews, that's why they have to be open and be an educational process to really understand: (that) this is what we need to keep our system safe and reliable. So it is tough, but we have to do the work to justify all those decisions.”
Other questions involved management style (“empathetic“), and whether she thought she could stay in the position for a long period of time.
For the later, she highlighted the longevity in the Socorro County position and that, if she wasn’t the preferred candidate for Ketchikan, she’d likely continue on in a job that she loves with the City of Las Cruces and retire there.
“So I am a long-term person,” Walsh said. “The only reason I even looked at this recruitment was because of the unique aspects of Ketchikan. And what I mean by that is I do miss my small town. I do miss being part of a community that is tight knit and close knit. And ... you know, it's hard when everybody knows your business, but it's also good when everybody knows your business because you're cared for as a community. And so that is the only reason I've even looked at this recruitment.”
After Walsh had responded to the questions from the council and mayor, she was given the opportunity to ask a question of them.
She refered to a question about goals she would have for the first 100 days and the first year with the city.
“So if you're looking ... looking forward to a year from now, what's going to tell you that you've made a successful hire?” Walsh asked.
After Mayor Kiffer and each council member gave their response to her inquiry, Walsh said that “what I'm hearing from all of you is that you do want to have a cohesive goal and a process, and that every single person on the council really wants to do what's best for community, as well as the employees of your organization.
“And so that's coming through very, very much,” Walsh said. “So, I think that, for me as a manager, personally, that is an excellent fit because it's really easy to get a lot done when you have people who care, and it's about the community and not about the individuals.”