Harvard’s new city administrator hopes to bring new ideas to help town’s roads, spending

Lou Leone became the Harvard city administrator on Dec. 12, 2022. Shown here on Jan. 11, 2023, Leone replaces Dave Nelson, who retired this week after 35 years with the city.

Lou Leone, the new city administrator for Harvard, is a big believer in the “two birds, one stone” management method.

If the manager can find thing that will help the community and its residents that has a ripple effect, fixing a few problems at once, that is what he prefers to do, Leone said.

Leone’s first day at Harvard was Dec. 12. He replaced David Nelson, who was the Harvard city administrator for 35 years and who officially retired this week.

The city was looking for someone much like Nelson “with a willingness to work with staff and experience in other positions to take over,” 3rd Ward Alderman Charles Gorman said.

“I think that with the meetings he had with staff and the conversations with the various department heads, this was a good fit and he would work out real well,” Gorman said.

Leone said his career in public administration has not been that long. An Illinois native, he received his degree in business administration from Millikin University in Decatur and spent some time working as a delivery driver in Lake County and Chicago. But when his wife was pregnant with their first child, he decided he needed to do something more.

So he earned a paralegal certificate and began working for a Chicago patent attorney.

His first taste of public administration came when the Leone family moved to Plainfield, where Leone ran for and became president of his homeowners association. “I ripped up the budget and put it back together,” Leone said.

At the tail end of the Great Recession, in 2010, Leone was laid off from the law firm and the family moved to the Denver suburbs, where he again went to work for a patent law firm.

Still, he said, he enjoyed public administration. In 2013, Leone went to night school to earn a master’s degree in public administration. He graduated from that program in 2015 at 43 years old. “I am a late bloomer in this,” Leone said.

The city of Harvard will ask residents to approve a local sales tax hike on the April 4 referendum. This photo, taken on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, of Ayer Street in downtown, shows the cracking prevalent on many Harvard streets.

He learned the job quickly. At his first city manager job, in Kansas, the city operated its own electric distribution grid, but breakdowns over the years meant that when the wind blew, the lights flickered.

He “knew nothing about electric itself” when he got the job, Leone said. But over his four year there, Leone said he was able to not only negotiate a better deal with the town’s electricity supplier, but also to put in a new generator for the city that allows it to sell excess power back to the supplier.

Then, at his last administrator gig in Nebraska, Leone negotiated a deal to bring a second water line into the city serving its hospital, while also opening up a swath of new land for desperately needed housing development.

In Harvard, he is already looking for ways to help bring in grant funds to help the town deal with its biggest issue: roads and road maintenance.

According to a study given to the city earlier this year, a majority of Harvard’s roads are in poor condition. The funding Harvard receives from the state’s gas tax is not enough to keep up, city official said. A referendum on the April 4 ballot will ask city voters to approve a sales tax increase to fund those repairs, a proposition they voted down in June.

As he searched for another way to address the roads, Leone asked city staff to take National Incident Management System training offered through FEMA. In the next four or five years, FEMA will require that training to receive agency grants, he said.

How does that help Harvard roads? Federal disaster mitigation grants could perhaps help the city pay for some of the needed road improvements, Leone said.

“It is multiple birds with one stone,” he said.

It is his hope to not only get voters behind the sales tax hike, but also create a maintenance plan, look at construction bonds, and other fixes to keep roads usable for a few more years, he said.

“That would be one less thing we have to worry about. Even if we have to take out a 20-year [construction] bond, if it lasts 40 years before it is due for replacement, it means that bond has been paid off” before the road is rebuilt, Leone said.

The other concerns he hopes to address as Harvard administrator is the need for new and diverse housing and additional economic growth, Leone said.

An equipment reserve plan is also high on his list. A good plan, he said, should rotate vehicles out before maintenance costs take too much out of the budget.

“If I can find $10 in the budget, then take that and apply it to something else, it becomes a cascading affect. If we can do that and drive the taxes down, then we don’t need to rely on taxes. It becomes self-sustaining,” Leone said.

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