With more than a decade as manager of the City of Batavia under his belt, 38-year-old Jason Molino says he cherishes the opportunity to move the community forward, ever mindful of the support he has received along the way.
Sidebar: City Council president weighs in on Molino’s performance.
“Every day is a new day, and the most fun is the (City of Batavia) staff,” he said. “We are fortunate to have dedicated people who go above and beyond – people who are committed to the community and seeing each other succeed -- and work in a community that is thankful for everything you do. That’s what makes it most enjoyable.”
Molino, a Saratoga Spring native, moved to Batavia in the winter of 2006 after accepting the assistant city manager position.
He admitted that local governmental administration is “a tough field, with a level of scrutiny,” but his motivation comes from understanding that “change happens” at the local level.
Molino started out as an environmental science major in college but switched to political science – a move he doesn’t regret.
“It was the second semester at Norwich (University in Northfield, Vt.) when I decided that environmental science – with all of those science courses – was not for me,” he said.
Also during this time, Molino joined the U.S. Coast Guard reserve as a Petty Officer 2nd Class and stayed on until 2007.
While political science can be a broad field, Molino focused on a degree in management, enrolling at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University of Albany. He overcame some initial doubts to earn a Master of Public Policy degree (the public sector version of an MBA).
“The program was one of the best in the country,” Molino said, noting that many international students – from the Eastern bloc and Asia -- were there “to learn public administration from the American values perspective.”
But Molino said he still wasn’t sure that he made the right move – “I wondered why I was here?” he said – until he took a local government seminar course taught by Bob McEvoy, a retired Schenectady County manager who became Molino’s mentor.
After graduate school and a one-year stint as a management assistant in Schenectady County, in 2004 Molino accepted the position of assistant to the village manager in Port Chester in Westchester County.
His responsibilities included developing budgets for the village’s geographic information system (GIS), leading a yearlong study of sanitation services, coordinating stormwater management, digitizing documents to improve workflow and negotiating labor contracts for 150 full-time employees.
“That was a different environment … a lot of the county’s villages and towns have managers,” Molino said. “When the Batavia assistant manager job was advertised, I applied, thinking that it was an opportunity to come back upstate. It was my journey back north, so to speak.”
It was his first experience with Western New York, however.
“I remember getting into town and stopping at the Chamber of Commerce office, which was downtown, and I grabbed some quarters to put in the parking meters,” he said. “I then realized that I didn’t have to pay for parking. Now that was something I didn’t live with. The next thing I did was check out Royal Rink (now Falleti Ice Arena).”
Molino’s interest in the ice rink stems from his years as a hockey player in Saratoga Springs, a passion that continues today as a goalie in the Batavia Men’s Hockey League.
At the time of his hiring as assistant city manager, Molino said he was unaware of the City’s financial difficulties. It didn’t take him long to see there were problems, however.
“It was around the summer of 2006 when I made Council aware that the City was late in disclosing financial statements,” he said. “There were six to seven years of operational deficits, and I was making a presentation a month to Council that this is what has been happening, and made immediate, short-term and long-term recommendations.”
Shortly thereafter, Molino replaced Matthew Coppler as city manager and embarked on a mission to erase a $2.2 million fund balance deficit. At the age of 26, he was the youngest city manager in the state.
“It was a difficult time,” he recalled. “We had no assistant, the deputy director of finance had left and the City Clerk was on maternity leave.”
Molino said his initial strategy was to draft a balanced budget and “stop the bleeding.”
“We took drastic measures, realizing a small surplus in operations, but the next budget (2007-08) was painful – reduction of services, retirement incentives, tax increases and staff cuts. ”We didn’t even have the proper equipment at that time as the City hadn’t purchased a piece of equipment in 10 years.”
Working together, Molino and City Council managed to stay out of the red every year since, unless there were planned expenditures, such as capital improvement plans and infrastructure projects.
Starting in 2009 and continuing to this day, Molino implemented best practices for budgeting, and the City has been honored by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada for the past three years for its budget presentation.
The year 2009 was an important year for Molino personally as he and Batavia native Anna Lesh were married following a two-year courtship. They reside on the city’s northwest side with children, Sophia Dinehart, a senior at Batavia High; Stella, 7; Charley, 5, and Jason Jr., 3.
Other important changes in the past eight years include consolidating police dispatch with Genesee County, abolishing the City’s ambulance service, developing a plan to revitalize the downtown Brownfield Opportunity Area (notably the Batavia Pathways to Prosperity funding arm), and participating in the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
“All of this has been driven by us trying to save money and improve operations,” Molino said. “We received pushback, for sure, because these were big decisions, tough decisions. Council made the decisions in light of severe financial challenges.”
Fairport Village Manager Bryan White, who at 37 is on a parallel career track with Molino since their time at Rockefeller College, gives Molino glowing reviews for restoring Batavia’s fiscal health.
“I don’t think Batavia understands the caliber of manager that Jason is,” said White, the current president of the NYS City/County Management Association (a position formerly held by Molino). “He is a true professional who is driven to succeed, who cares about the community and is well-rounded in regard to his thinking and processes.”
White said Molino’s status as a “credentialed manager” speaks volumes.
“You have to be in the program for over seven years just to apply, and you have to prove to your peers that you have achieved a level of competency in public sector management and local government,” he said.
Molino has been successful, White said, by “building an environment that fosters leadership, confidence, and accountability.”
Today, Batavia has emerged from the “recovery mode,” as Molino puts it, into a “growth mode that can propel the community to greater things.”
And last month’s announcement that the City won the $10 million DRI award for the Finger Lakes Region will make Molino’s campaign of $100 Million, I’m All In campaign much more reachable.
“We’re looking for $100 million in investment in the City by 2022,” he said. “With input from the staff, support from Council and the community, we can do it.”
In the meantime, the City has secured $2.5 million in funding for extensive street repair on Union, Clinton, Vine, Liberty and South Liberty streets, and East Avenue in 2018, work that will include resurfacing, sidewalks and water lines, Molino said.
All told, the City has made a remarkable recovery – tax increases, if any, have been minimal; state and federal money is coming in and it looks as though a solution to the ongoing dilemma known as the City Centre Mall is near.
Molino indicated that interviews for the assistant city manager position are concluding and that a final candidate will be introduced within a couple weeks. Batavia has been without an assistant to Molino since the departure of Gretchen DiFante in July.
“There have been challenges and curveballs, but throughout all of this, City Council has made the decisions to allow these things to progress – a lot of important decisions,” said Molino, who manages a $25 million budget and a workforce of 140 (full-time equivalent).
He said that discussions are ongoing with the owner of property on Swan Street, a parcel targeted by a city task force for a potential site for a new police headquarters.
“We’re trying to get a contract for a sale in front of Council,” he said, adding that a facility with a $10 million to $15 million price tag would have a significant impact on taxes – and will trigger community input from those on both sides of the fence.
Molino said he understands that public criticism of those charged with making the decisions comes with the territory.
“Anybody that gets into this line of work must accept the fact that he or she will be criticized publicly,” he said. “Even with the best of intentions and ideas, it is the people’s right to criticize. While I don’t take it personally, sometimes people cross the line.
“But at the end of the day, I’m recommending what I believe to be the best possible solutions, giving Council the information to make its decision.”