New City Manager
Wilson faces challenges of pandemic, economic downturn
If there is one thing Sandra Wilson is certain about in her new job as Ocala’s city manager, it’s that the days and months ahead are filled with, well, uncertainty.
Wilson, a 20-year veteran of City Hall, was named city manager by the Ocala City Council on June 2, after serving as interim in the post for six months. She is the first African American to hold the city manager’s post and succeeds John Zobler, who abruptly resigned late last year after a half decade marked by significant progress in the city, particularly downtown. Wilson served as Zobler’s No. 2 for most of his tenure.
Now that she is at the helm of city government, however, Wilson faces some serious challenges.
Last month a court ruled that the city’s fire fee was unconstitutional and ordered the city to reimburse those who had paid it. Since the city began collecting the controversial fee in 2007, Ocala pocketed $103 million from city residents – money used for fire department operations and equipment purchases. The city is appealing the ruling, but if it has to reimburse fee payers, it will put a strain on city finances, to say the least.
Of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic presents a separate set of financial and social pressures. The pandemic has slowed the economy and, in turn, the city will see lower tax revenues from the state.
While Wilson said her immediate to-do list incudes finishing up capital projects that are under way – the Mary Sue Rich Community Center on the city’s westside and the first-responder campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (the third such facility) – she also knows that lower tax revenues likely mean fewer city projects.
“We’re probably going to have to be reviewing every capital project out there,” Wilson said. “We’re probably going to have to be pumping the brakes until we know where that (the fire fee issue) is going to take us.”
City Council members agree with Wilson’s assessment of what lies ahead.
“Sandra’s got some significant challenges in front of her,” Councilman Matt Wardell said, “but I think she’s measured enough to handle them. There’s always a person for the time. I think she’s the person for this time because we have some tough decisions.”
Councilman Justin Grabelle, the only council member not to support Wilson’s hiring, nonetheless praised her and noted that when Zobler started he had a significant advantage compared with where Wilson is starting.
“John had money,” he said. “John was riding the wave (of a booming economy) … We saw really unprecedented economic expansion while John was there.”
Wilson, on the other hand, faces so much economic uncertainty, he said.
Maybe Wilson’s staunchest supporter on the council from the outset was Councilman Jay Musleh. He believes Wilson is best equipped to keep the city moving in the positive direction it enjoyed under Zobler’s leadership.
“I think she’s going to do a good job,” Musleh said. “She’s certainly got the background. She’s been No. 2 for five or six years.”
Wardell initially supported another candidate for the job but became a fan of Wilson’s because of her handling of city operations and employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She was really on the ball, she was always thinking about the employees,” he said. “I think she knows the city’s business.”
Now that she is in the job, Wilson has a priority list that begins with finally addressing the downtown homeless issue, something upon which the council members agree.
“That’s huge for us,” she said. “It’s really impacting the quality of life of our midtown business. It’s sad, but it’s a complex issue.”
Until the homeless question is resolved, or at least mitigated, Wilson foresees the development of the midtown – the area north of Silver Springs Boulevard – to be on hold.
“I’m looking for ideas from anyone,” she added. “I don’t have the answer, but it’s important.”
The ongoing upgrade of the city’s utility system also is near the top of Wilson’s priority list.
“Our utility system is quite old, and like anything, it has to be upgraded,” she said, adding that it will be paid for through utility rates.
She is also working with the county and the World Equestrian Center to extend city utilities to the massive equine development associated with Golden Ocala.
Finally, what signature issue would Wilson like to make her own? Affordable housing.
Wilson sees the need for affordable housing as a major local issue. Creating affordable housing is part of the City Council’s long-term master plan, and she believes there are a number of opportunities, mostly on the westside, to development neighborhoods to meet that objective. Those areas include Tucker Hill, the proposed development of the former Pine Oaks Golf Course and the former Royal Oak property.
She also wants to undertake a program to acquire abandoned, derelict and dilapidated houses and refurbish them, creating affordable housing and urban infill at the same time.
Wilson said Zobler was well-liked and respected because he was so responsive to citizens’ queries and complaints. She intends to be the same … but different.
“Everyone says, ‘You have some big shoes to fill,’” she said. “Well, I have my own shoes to fill and they’re different.
And as for being the first African American to serve as city manager: “I feel good about it. I’m honored to be the first.”