Jim Arndt knew his new job would come with challenges.
Paducah was wrestling with the ongoing increase in pension obligations all Kentucky cities must pay to the state. The city's population estimates had remained stagnant for years. The city commission Arndt met July 1, 2018, would likely change in six months.
Arndt nonetheless accepted the position of city manager, and he pledged to be a champion for his new home.
Arndt's first year managing Paducah's daily operations -- while also introducing a number of internal changes -- hasn't dimmed his enthusiasm for the city. In fact, he and wife Kim purchased a house here about two weeks ago.
"We're invested. We're totally committed. We enjoy being here; it's a great community," Arndt said.
Arndt's optimism about the city is honest: He doesn't ignore the challenges the city faces, and he's not one to dismiss valid criticism, as one of the city's soon-to-be-unveiled initiatives shows.
A 'New Day'
The "New Day Initiative" is designed to put residents at the center of the city's permitting and inspection processes, which Arndt said have received consistent criticism for being too complicated.
"One of the things that was a challenge when I got here was the reputation the city had as far as customer experience -- how we handle inspections, issues of permits and permit processing," Arndt said. "We really took that feedback to heart, and we implemented several strategies to put in place to be more customer-centric and outward-focused."
Those strategies include the creation of a new customer experience department. Three current city employees with customer service experience will staff and lead the new department, so that the city won't have to spend money on new hires, Arndt said.
Elements of the new initiative will be unveiled to the public from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Friday at City Hall.
The customer experience department will work closely with the city's new business development director, whose role will be to engage with businesses and Greater Paducah Economic Development in order to help with retention, expansion and, to a lesser extent, recruitment of new employers.
The city reconfigured an already-budgeted, but unfilled position that formerly existed in its information technology department to allow for that new hire, Arndt said.
"I see (that hire) playing a big role as an advocate for local businesses, working hand in hand with Greater Paducah Economic Development," Arndt said. "Anything we can do to help GPED spur on economic development in the community, that's a win-win for everybody."
Walking the 'tightrope'
The internal changes reflect the city's priorities and values. Arndt recognizes Paducah needs to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, while also looking at ways to reverse the trajectory of its population and grow its tax base.
That's a tricky, but necessary "tightrope" to walk, Arndt said.
Paducah, like the rest of the cities in Kentucky, must find a way to pay considerably more money to the state for employee pensions.
This year's obligation was $1.2 million, and that amount will continue to increase by 12 percent each year, spiking at an estimated $3.2 million, Arndt said.
"The obligations pressed upon us by the state are very daunting. We're trying to be positive, though," he said. "The biggest challenge for us going forward is finding that balance, if you will, between pushing for growth in the community and working within your means."
Part of the effort will involve getting "a good, firm hand" on the city's population base, which has remained more or less steady, but on a slight decline, since the 2010 Census.
"We need to see if we can get that (population) to turn up," he said, adding that includes looking at recruitment, quality-of-life measures and ways of attracting both new employers and residential developers.
Those, he said, are the "tried and true" methods to growing population, but the city's also considering some "outside the box" approaches, such as a relocation program.
"We have everything here to support a much larger population base. It's just a matter of making Paducah attractive," he said. "It's a safe community, a very hospitable and welcoming community. We have a lot of positives going for us; we just have to show it."
Diving into capital improvements
The financial constraints haven't stopped Paducah from moving forward with plans to improve recreation opportunities.
"One thing that excites me is the opportunity to be able to work on the creation of a new indoor aquatic facility. The request for qualifications is going out today," Arndt said during an interview last Thursday. "Hopefully this time next year, we'll be bidding out construction, or already have a contract underway."
The city commission is considering three potential sites for the aquatic facility, and owns land for two of them, Arndt added.
Mayor Brandi Harless said at a joint meeting of the City Commission and the McCracken County Fiscal Court that $750,000 has been budgeted for facility design.
Funding for the project itself will have to be identified before construction starts, Arndt said.
The potential facility, as well as improved, "tournament-worthy" fields for sports teams, are at the top of the city's capital improvements list, Arndt said.
The formal capital improvement plan itself is the first one in modern Paducah history, he added.
That plan links with the city's strategic plan, the completion of which was one of Arndt's first directives when he took the position last summer.
"One thing I was charged with when I first arrived was to determine the values of the organization and get the strategic plan launched. We did that successfully in the timeline allowed by the Board of Commissioners," Arndt said.
Building 'Team Paducah'
Some of Arndt's proudest accomplishments are less tangible than the new athletic facilities, Greenway Trail expansions and updated sidewalks he says are on the horizon.
"July 1 (2018), we had the first all-employee meeting in the modern history of the city of Paducah," said the city manager of his first day. "Multiple employees who had been here for a couple of decades had never talked to or met the city manager before."
That day marked a "strategic, intentional" change in how the then-new city manager would interact with the more than 300 employees who work for Paducah.
"Look at a football team. If the head coach never meets with the football team, how effective is the football team going to be?" he asked. "Not very, and I want to make sure that doesn't occur here. In the past it may have occurred, but it's unacceptable, and it goes back to one of our key organizational values: Every person matters."
He continued: "Without (all the city employees), we can't function, and we're here to provide services. We're not here to sit in a chair and hold down space."