The following chronicles Columbus City Administrator Tara Vasicek's tenure in Columbus as its city administrator so far.
NOTE TO READERS: As city administrator, Tara Vasicek oversees activities in the city office and the departments that are in charge of utilities and services; as well as the day-to-day operations of the City while implementing all plans and policies under the direction of the Columbus City Council. The following is meant to detail the experiences and opinions of Columbus City Council members' and Mayor Jim Bulkley regarding Vasicek.
When Tara Vasicek was first hired as the new city administrator for the City of Columbus back in early 2017, she was ready to hit the ground running.
Since that time, the City of Columbus has grown exponentially in many ways. Under Vasicek and the City Council’s leadership, more than 30 residential, multi-family, and commercial developments have occurred; the voter-approved 3rd Avenue and 12th Avenue vehicle viaducts and 18th Avenue pedestrian overpass have been constructed; the Wastewater Treatment Facility was relocated to the protected side of Loup River Levee; and the Powerhouse Park Trail Phase 1 pedestrian trail connection took place, among other things.
“When you look at the activity and growth that our community has had and all of the great things that are taking place in Columbus, Tara is a huge part of the reason for it,” Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said. “She is a hard worker that drives herself and those that report to her.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been hardships along the way. Vasicek and the Columbus City Council, which has had members come and go in her tenure, have had to actively work on strengthening communication.
“I can’t say it’s always been a bed of roses,” City Councilman Ron Schilling said. “But it doesn’t matter who it would be in that role. Sometimes we all have our little conflicts.”
“I think it has been a learning curve for all of us,” Councilman Rich Jablonski said. “She has a different style than (her predecessor). But we set some goals for her and she’s accomplished those.”
No day for the city administrator is exactly the same.
- She plans, directs and coordinates, through subordinate employees, the programs and activities of all departments and divisions of the City government;
- constantly keeps the mayor and City Council fully advised on the financial condition and needs of the City;
- assures efficient and equitable delivery of city services;
- directs major economic development projects; directs utility department operations such as water treatment and wastewater;
- fosters community partnerships and interagency collaboration;
- serves as the spokesperson for the City in responding to requests from public and external organizations;
- meets with developers and businesses interested in economic development in Columbus;
- oversees the annual budget process with direction from the City Council; and a whole lot more.
“Her greatest strength is her ability to juggle her administrative duties and all of the departments,” Councilman Prent Roth said. “And I think she does a super job doing her duties as city administrator.”
[TO REVIEW THE CITY’S AUDIT REPORTS, CLICK HERE.]
Council President Beth Augustine-Schulte led Vasicek’s performance evaluation last year, which involved collecting input from department heads and council members anonymously. The two also have periodic meetings to discuss public concerns, policies and more.
“Tara’s a good leader and a very hard worker,” Augustine-Schulte said. “She works late, takes calls on the weekend and is available to anyone on council who has a question and to anyone in the public if they reach out. She’s very committed and takes her work personally. She has high expectations for herself and she has backbone. She’s not afraid to hear what people have to say but also not afraid to stand up against things that would not benefit the City.”
Augustine-Schulte added though some in the community tend to believe the city administrator makes all final decisions, it’s hardly the truth.
“She’s responsible for following our directives. If she has a big project … She can’t just take off on her own and do it. She can put together a plan, but nothing can happen with that plan until it receives council approval,” Augustine-Schulte said. “She’ll do it the way Council asks. She does not have all the power people think she does.”
Vasicek in fiscal year 2022-2023 (her sixth year in the position) makes $226,800 annually with an expected rise to $233,604 annually in fiscal year 2023-2024.
Throughout her tenure, the city administrator has received performance-based raises and cost-of-living raises that all City employees have received annually for decades. There is no assistant city administrator in Columbus.
The city administrator received a cost-of-living raise in fiscal year 2018-2019, then one based on performance and an independent firm’s wage study analysis in fiscal year 2019-2020. She received a raise for fiscal year 2020-2021 based on performance and a cost-of-living increase. The position got cost-of-living increases the last two years and is expected to receive another like all City employees in the upcoming fiscal year.
City administrators’ annual salaries in Columbus vs. sister cities:
|CITY ||YEARS IN POSITION||CURRENT SALARY||PROPOSED 2023-2024 SALARY||ASSISTANT CITY ADMIN?|
|BEATRICE||Not made available||$235,165||Not approved||Yes|
|NORFOLK||6||$188,808||Not approved||Yes, earlier this year.|
|GRAND ISLAND||1 month||$192,530||Not approved||Yes, just added|
|HASTINGS||1||$188,947||Not approved. Requesting 4% raise||None, but plan to add in new budget year|
*The City of Omaha and the City of Lincoln told the City of Columbus they do not have a comparable position to city administrator. Omaha and Lincoln run under a “strong mayor” form of government, in which the day-to-day management of community operations shifts to the mayor.*
The city administrator’s salary has been a focal point for some in the community. Some of the City Council members indicated they have heard criticisms, though pointed to what other communities do.
Council members, including Charlie Bahr, Ron Schilling and Katherine Lopez, said they’ve heard people criticize the city administrator for various reasons and had thoughts on it.
“I think a lot of it is brought on by jealousy – seeing a young woman who is very good at her job and intelligent,” Bahr said. “I think she does an excellent job, and I don’t care if she’s a male or female. That really shouldn’t enter into it.”
Lopez also had perspective.
"Being a city administrator is a full-time job. She works dedicatedly for the City and it’s really unfortunate these comments arise on Facebook," Lopez said. "They don’t see the dedication she puts in. They should give her a visit and actually have a conversation with her as opposed to spewing out these comments that are distasteful …”
Schilling said the scrutiny comes with the job, but the public should know the City Council backs the administrator and always hold her accountable.
“I have confidence in her ability as far as running the City, but like anyone else in a job, there are areas she can improve,” Schilling said, noting the job has a lot of tough responsibilities like managing many departments and staff members while also interacting with the City Council and public. “There are areas she can improve on to make her better and stronger, and that’s what our (City Council’s) job is.”
All of the council members said Vasicek is always available to meet with them whenever they have questions.
“As a new council member, I did not fully realize the intricacies and details that it takes to make the City of Columbus operate and provide quality care and service to community members,” said Councilwoman Hope Freshour, who was appointed to Council in February 2023 by Mayor Bulkley to fill the term of John Lohr after he announced his resignation. “Tara as the city administrator is professional, competent, and detailed, she is open to feedback and has always provided me with the history, documentation and information needed when I have questions so I can make an informed decision.”
[TO REVIEW THE CITY’S ANNUAL BUDGETS, CLICK HERE.]
Every Columbus City Council member and Mayor Bulkley praised Vasicek’s leadership, transparency and vast knowledge of government policies and other items like TIF (Tax Increment Financing), an economic development tool used as a subsidy for redevelopment, infrastructure and other community-improvement projects.
“It was definitely a breath of fresh air when she came in from our previous leadership … I think she has overcome a lot of adversity and moved the City forward with great progress as far as finding ways to bring more income to the City more ways to diversify the team of employees who engage under her,” Councilman Troy Hiemer said.
“She definitely goes above and beyond and has been scrutinized by the Council … she listened to our goals and obtained then. She listened to City Council feedback about her weaknesses and turned them into strengths.”
Bahr said the city administrator covers all the bases very well when it comes to working with staff, the City Council and operating things efficiently.
“I have no negatives to say about Tara Vasicek. I think Columbus should be proud to have her,” Bahr said. “I would hate to see her go anywhere else. I’m pretty sure other communities would want her …”
Bulkley said serving as city administrator comes with having to make tough decisions on a regular basis that not everyone might like, ranging from personnel to enforcing ordinances.
“She has implemented a management style that expects accountability and brings efficiencies,” Bulkley said. “She has instilled a work ethic that is second to none. There is no one that works harder for the citizens that employ her.”
Mayor Bulkley and the Columbus City Council said they appreciate feedback from the public, though acknowledged their desire for more people to attend meetings rather than complain without attempting to engage elected officials and City staff. For the last several years, barring hot topics here and there, Council meetings have had less than 12 members of the public in attendance.
“Negative feedback on social media doesn’t do any justice,” Hiemer said. “The Council encourages everyone to come to all meetings. If they have something they want to talk about, they have a voice, and we need to hear it.”
The Council meets at 6 p.m. the first and third Monday of the month in its chamber on the third floor of the Columbus Community Building, 2500 14th St.
The next City Council meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, due to the Labor Day holiday on Monday, Sept. 4.