ENID, Okla. —
City Manager Eric Benson will retire at the end of next year, concluding an eight-year run as Enid’s top public employee.
He told his staff of his intention to retire Wednesday, the morning after Enid City Commission conducted a personnel evaluation in executive session Tuesday night.
In the meantime, Benson said there still are things to do.
“I didn’t come here to build a resumé for another job,” he said.
“Enid has seen many successes during his time as our city manager,” Mayor Bill Shewey said in a news release Wednesday. “Enid has become one of the most fiscally sound cities in Oklahoma. His vision and management capability have been an asset to our city.
“We are extremely grateful for his dedication and involvement in making Enid a great place to live.”
Shewey said working with Benson has been a pleasure, and he looks forward to working with him for the next 17 months.
“The city commission appreciates the opportunity to have nearly 17 months to recruit and hire a suitable replacement, and thanks (to) Mr. Benson for his candid disclosure of his long-term plans,” Shewey said in the news release.
Benson has a number of accomplishments as his legacy, but he also has been a controversial city manager at times, mostly notably Enid Renaissance Project to build Enid Event Center and renovate Convention Hall. Renaissance came after city voters rejected a bond issue to help pay for part of the project.
He also pushed a combined $50 million bond issue and sales tax proposal to build new parks and upgrade existing ones. The measures failed, with 77 percent of voters against the proposals.
Benson said he will leave the city in good condition after making “massive improvements,” both in the community and himself. The city commission deserves the opportunity to take the time to hire the right person, he said.
“It’s a privilege to hold this position. This is a great town to live in, and I think I’ve made a contribution,” he said.
He quoted professional football player Brett Favre who said, “I know I can do it, but how long do I want to do it.”
Benson said the community is entitled to new energy and new ideas. He made the decision after long consideration about what is best for the community, he said. He believes it is time for the next stage.
“I’m trying to be up front with the council,” Benson said.
Looking back on his time as city manager, Benson said he is most proud of the relationship he has with city employees. When he started, he described the relations as fractured. Today, they work as a cohesive team, he said.
“I hope they respect me as much as I respect them,” Benson said.
Since Benson became city manager, he has put the city on an “exceedingly” strong financial standing, he said. Prosperity in government has returned, and the city can make its own destiny and has the financial resources to do whatever it wants, he said.
Among some of Benson’s other accomplishments, he said, have been replacing manpower with technology, slashing workers’ compensation claims and introducing the best employee safety program in the state.
“We have rebuilt and restored the parks and recreation department. That has been a hole in our budget for years, “ Benson said. “Across the board, city employees have a renewed commitment to the job and to the city. The employees prove it every day.”
The city also created a defined 401(k) plan that allows employees to invest in themselves through the benefit plan. He has given a pay raise to every employee every year he has been city manager, and that will be done again in 2014, he said. There also have not been any layoffs or reductions in force, he said.
“No accomplishment is just Eric Benson. The city of Enid is a team, the citizens and the council, which showed vision and bravery at times,” Benson said.
However, he accepted full responsibility for all failures. While Benson does not think there have been any failures in achievement, he said there have been failures in his approach. He said he has received good advice from many residents of Enid, even the criticism.
“I still have 18 months ahead of me, and we are on the edge of great things,” he said.
“Enid is on the verge of a great retail development,” he said. “Any failures are me and not anyone else.”
There are big challenges ahead. Benson said the city needs to examine the greatest priority people are asking for — street repairs. In the past seven years, the city has spent $46 million on street repairs, but he said there still are many improvements to be made. To do that, he said, some type of financial assistance will be needed, and he indicated the city may ask for a bond issue sometime in the next year.
“The council is also going to continue to look at improving the quality of life. We’re looking at the strategic challenge of water,” Benson said. “We just need to make the decision where we are going to go get it.”
The water situation will be eased somewhat by Koch Nitrogen using less potable water in its operations. Earlier this year, Koch announced a $1 billion expansion project at the Enid plant.
Benson said there is a synergy with Koch’s expansion, along with plans by Northstar Agri Industries to build a $200 million canola processing plant here. He said he has had calls in the past week from other companies interested in Enid.
“There is massive interest in Enid from around the state,” Benson said.
Benson, a retired Navy captain, was named city manager seven years ago, following the resignation of Bill Gamble. Ward 6 City Commissioner Jerry Erwin was appointed interim city manager while a search was conducted. Benson was selected from among 54 applicants.
Benson started at a salary of $100,000 per year, with few benefits, not even a car allowance. At the time, $100,000 salary for a city manager was low for cities the size of Enid, which averaged about $110,000 to $120,000 in pay. In December 2012, Benson’s salary was raised to $135,200. Benson’s salary in his final year with the city will be $142,000.
Benson moved to Enid in 2004 after 29 years in the Navy. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve while a student at Oklahoma State University, and later was commissioned in the regular Navy.
“Leadership is fundamental in any area of the military. The Navy is now operating on a business and service footing. The Navy taught me that with the right preparation and dedication, you can do anything,” Benson said at the time he was hired.
He spent three years as commander of Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia, one of the largest military installations in the country. He compared Oceana to Enid in a number of ways. He had a council to report to, and there was a commitment to the local population. He supervised 300 police officers and 275 firefighters, both military and civilian.
Three bases were combined with Oceana during his tenure, and the base population increased from 15,000 to 45,000. He also oversaw highways, roads, water and sewer, and made decisions concerning the distribution of funds for infrastructure.