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Stephen Collier ready to fly at Albany utilities without 'safety net'

Long-time city of Albany employee is adjusting well to transfer to Water, Gas & Light

Stephen Collier, right, and new Assistant City Manager Phil Roberson have more than 70 combined years of service with the city of Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Stephen Collier, right, and new Assistant City Manager Phil Roberson have more than 70 combined years of service with the city of Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Stephen Collier was closing in on 33 years as a city of Albany employee when he was selected by former City Manager James Taylor to serve as interim assistant city manager for utilities. He’s since had the interim tag removed by interim City Manager Tom Berry. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Stephen Collier knows that, at the end of even the longest days, there’s a mountain of paperwork awaiting his attention.

But the city of Albany’s new assistant city manager for utilities doesn’t mind staying a little late to take care of the paperwork. During the heart of the workday, he’s going to be out in the field, watching the Water, Gas & Light Commission’s meter readers do their thing, riding into some rough neighborhoods with fraud investigators, greeting customers and answering their questions about utilities costs.

“I don’t mind hanging around to do all the paperwork,” Collier, who became the city’s top utilities manager on July 22, said. “I want to learn, and I don’t believe you do that by sitting in an office. Sure, you can read manuals and you can look up stuff on the Internet. But there’s no substitute for getting out there with the guys.”

The new utilities manager brings 33 years of experience to his position with WG&L, having worked his way up from entry-level parts department employee to director of the city’s Central Services department. He brings a level of enthusiasm to the position that convinced Berry to remove the “interim” tag from Collier’s title shortly after Berry moved into the city manager’s office.

“When Mr. (former city manager James) Taylor promoted Stephen to the position, he gave him something of a safety net,” said Berry, who served as interim WG&L general manager for eight months before moving into the city manager’s office. “He told Stephen he could go back to Central Services if he didn’t like the change.

“But I thought it was important to take that safety net away. He needed to go ahead and move forward.”

Collier’s done that, serving as point man in the ongoing merger of the utilities authority with the city of Albany. Things have gone so well with the integration process, Berry noted last week, “If the other combinations we’re doing go as smoothly as utilities and finance, I’ll be pleased.”

At 53 and with 33 years of service under his belt, Collier was easing toward retirement when Taylor approached him about the vacant utilities position. Collier admits that he was initially caught off guard.

“I didn’t see that one coming,” he said. “Never in a hundred years did I think I’d be asked to fill shoes that had been worn by men like Mr. (Lemuel) Edwards and Mr. (Walter) Rodemann. It’s an honor and a privilege for our city leaders to believe that I had enough to offer for this position.”

Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who also serves as chair of the Water, Gas & Light Commission board, said Collier brings plenty to the table with the utilities authority.

“Mr. Collier’s going to be as good for the city in this new position as he was with Central Services,” Hubbard said. “He brings customer service, knowledge and experience to the table, an excellent combination. Having people like Mr. Collier and Mr. (Phil) Roberson (named assistant city manager by Berry) as part of our management team is going to help us bring about some important changes.

“We’re excited that these two men with all their years of experience are the ones who were in the right place at the right time for our city.”

Collier grew up in tiny Colquitt, moving to Albany with his sister after graduating from Miller County High School. He quickly landed a job at the Ogletree Oldsmobile parts counter. A couple of years later, he applied for a vacant position with the city of Albany. He interviewed for the entry-level position, got it and began his inexorable climb up the government ladder.

“Jamie Ogletree told me I had a bright future with GM and tried to talk me out of making the move,” Collier said. “And there was a point after I’d been with the city for a while that I was recruited by one of the companies that sold to us. (A company rep) told me that there were great opportunities for someone with my skills in the Atlanta market.

“But one of my mentors here, Mr. Clyde Harold, encouraged me to stay with the city. He told me I’d have opportunities here.”

When Collier began to show promise in his position, he was allowed to work half-days in the parts department and half-days as a buyer. He attended classes at Albany Junior College (now Darton State College) and traveled the state to complete National Institute of Governmental Purchasing certification. Shortly after finishing the required work, Collier was promoted to a buyer position in Central Services.

Six years later Collier was promoted to senior buyer, and a short while later, he was named fleet management superintendent.

“I was selected to head a team that went to Tallahassee to study efficiencies they had in their fleet management department,” he said. “Using some of the things we learned, we developed our own program here. When the two top people in that department retired at the same time, I competed for and won the job.”

Collier didn’t stay in his first management position very long. Less than two years after his promotion, in 2001, he was named interim director of Central Services. A year later he interviewed for that position full-time and was again promoted.

“I didn’t go in and try to make these huge, wholesale changes,” he said. “But what I did do is create a process where the departments had more of a say in what they bought. Our Central Services folks had been making those kinds of decisions, and I thought it made more sense for the departments to have more input.”

Collier quickly impressed higher-ups with his knowledge of the purchasing process and his ability to remain cool under the scrutiny of city commissioners who had a tendency to try and intimidate employees.

“There’s something I always say — and when you write this, the folks in Central Services will know you really talked to me — ‘Confidence short of arrogance.’ I tell my people that all the time. When you’re in that position, it’s a tough place to be. We’re getting pressure from vendors, from the citizen side and from the political side. You just have to do your job, present the facts confidently without a trace of arrogance.”

Collier said having Roberson appointed to assistant city manager has been a bonus as the two long-time city employees have worked together to bring their knowledge and enthusiasm to city employees nervous about all the talk of “change” and “repurposing” coming out of the fifth floor of the Government Center.

“Working on this level with Phil has been a great experience already,” Collier said. “We both kind of came through the ranks the same way, and we both believe in getting out there and working with our employees. And, of course, I have a great advantage of having had the guy across the street (Berry) here for eight months before I got here. He had already begun reorganizing our utilities and had set expectations.

“Most of the tension had eased by the time I got here.”

That’s allowed Collier to do what he does best: solicit buy-in from the employees he directs.

“There’s a sense of excitement around this organization,” he said. “Yes, there’s some anxiety, too, but I’m working to assure our employees that what we’re preaching — ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity’ — is there for them. I don’t want to just tell everyone ‘this is what we’re doing,’ I want to tell them ‘this is why we’re doing this’ and have them embrace it, too.

“I will tell folks what they need to do if I have to. But I’m looking for buy-in.”