Leavitt: Farewell, Highland Village

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Highland Village City Manager Michael Leavitt (pictured at Doubletree Ranch Park) plans to retire in October after 20 years of overseeing the city. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

City Manager Michael Leavitt provides one last article to the community. Leavitt is set to retire on October 1 after 20 years of service to the residents of Highland Village and the region.

How to describe a city? Our tagline and logo is our public message, but I am a true believer our history is what defines us and tells our story. Yes, we can try to cover over or push an event into silence but it’s always there.

Much can be said about the quality of lifestyle of Highland Village, so I looked to our history in the book “A History and Heritage of Highland Village,” and found a great description of the community. “Modern-day Highland Village morphed from a small, rural town into a suburban city seemingly overnight in the 1970’s. The lifestyle here was based upon a distinct blend of rural Texans aspirations and perspectives and the wishes of some wealthy Dallasites to get away from it all. The desire was to become part of something related to the Dallas lifestyle but distinctly more relaxed and real in the sense of seeking to enjoy nature and live closer to the land. These are recurring strains throughout the municipal history of the City of Highland Village, Texas.” 

In “A History and Heritage of Highland Village” the story ends in 2000 with Mayor Bill Lawrence, and that ending was my beginning. I have had the pleasure of working with seven different mayors and multiple different councilmembers, many of them longtime residents and others corporate executives transferred to the DFW metro area that just happened to find their new home in Highland Village to raise their families. The success of this community is reflected in the past and present leadership and their aspiration to move Highland Village forward while still maintaining all the exceptional qualities that are engrained in Highland Village.

Yes, we had differing opinions with development – Walmart was seen as a non-community store, FM 2499 was going to overburden a small community and become a gateway to outsiders which was going to be disruptive to the lifestyle of our community. But change happens. We knew the herd of cattle that laid under the big Pecan tree that now stands in front of Walmart was going to disappear and the two-lane Farm to Market road was not going to handle the future. We grappled with how to balance all of nature’s beauty and the public’s safety going from our homes to our growing commercial area in the city. So many challenges, and in the middle of all the difficulty lies opportunities. Our goal was to serve the greater good and become a full service city that you never have to leave, if it’s your wish!

The opportunity to work with elected officials can be inspiring. The individuals that have volunteered to step up and prove to the public they want to be your leader, to protect, invest and to maintain all our community values while balancing the financial commitment of a city can be hard. That leadership, statesmanship, and common sense is a remarkable experience to work with and to be a first-hand witness to. To be part of a solution and to find compromise to address the greater good is truly one of the most rewarding experiences for myself. During many of our public hearings many years ago, the Council was divided and multiple heated exchanges would take place; there was the “yes” to development and there was the “no” to development. But the one commonality that was shared by all, was the love of this community and the ability to compromise to address the need to serve the greater good. That’s easy to say now but it was hard then, the challenges were real and we had to get creative. There was no way we were going from a volunteer fire department to a paid department without a financial impact to our residents. So how did we do it?

First it was Economic Development, Council established the goal to increase our sales tax from four percent of our general fund revenue to 12 percent. The term was phrased “we are open for business.” The establishment of that goal was a joint venture between City Council, Planning and Zoning, City staff, residents and property owners. It was going to be a collaborative, all-encompassing cohesive plan; no piecemeal, no isolated development, it was all or nothing. The trust that everyone shared with me was an honor from the property owner Jimmy Fagin, the developers, City Council, and even some of the adjacent property owners. Change is difficult for everyone but there was no compromising our integrity, accountability and our responsibility to our residents and the greater good. So how was everything achieved?

On October 5, 2007 the announcement of FM 2499 had been issued on the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) by TXDOT. This provided the signal to the development community a new corridor was going to happen in southern Denton County. At the same time two major retail centers were developed; The Marketplace anchored by Walmart, TJ Maxx and Petco, along with The Shops at Highland Village anchored by AMC Theaters, Barnes & Noble with the addition of Whole Foods several years later. Although it took an additional three more years to construct FM 2499, both of these Highland Village retail centers were “open for business.”

Council took the next step by allowing the community to consider a 4-B half cent sales tax with restricted uses for trails and a soccer facility, which was overwhelmingly approved by residents. Today the annual revenue for the 4B is $1.3 million for fiscal year 2021. Our sales tax revenue in 2003 provided 4% of the total revenue to the General Fund. In the FY 2021 budget, sales tax will provide close to 20% of the general fund revenue for a dollar amount of $2.8 million. The total amount of sales tax for both funds is $4.1 million to the City.

When I present the city budget to different organizations, I explain that municipal government is a service organization. Our employees are our biggest expense and our biggest asset. We are here to make a difference, to impact someone’s life every day.  Our employees have embraced this philosophy and continually look for ways they can not only provide service that has a positive effect on our residents and the community, but they look for the most efficient way to provide that service.

Anyone who knows me will tell you my favorite topic is water and wastewater. In Highland Village we have an outstanding system that will last for the long term. Two years ago we increased our utility rate and implemented a new rate structure and that was the first increase in 17 years. With that strategy the city portion of the current rate should be maintained for another five years with no adjustment.

The expansion of economic development in Highland Village was needed to fund the city services and amenities our community desired. Our fire department in 2000 was all volunteer with two paid employees – our fire chief and an administrative assistant. We needed to provide emergency medical services and fire services for our residents and that could only happen with a full-time, paid, fire department. That costs money in personnel, facilities, and equipment. How did we do it? Sales tax. The increase in sales tax revenue allowed us to implement a phased approach to achieving a full-time, fully staffed fire department without increasing the ad valorem property tax. Today we have one of the most professional and well-trained and equipped fire departments in North Texas, they are the best first responders and emergency reaction team, and they can handle anything!

Our police department is known for their community policing model, we have been recognized both by our state and national organizations for community policing along with being recognized as a very safe community for over the last 15 years. In fact, other departments all over the country have come to Highland Village to learn about the way we provide police services and work with our community to create a safe city. This way of policing began before I became city manager and I believed so strongly in it we continued it and looked for ways to expand and improve our involvement in the community and the health and safety of our residents. In 2009 we were the first agency in Denton County to fully implement body cameras on all patrol officers and are currently on our third generation of technology. Integrity and accountability is our pledge to our residents and visiting community members in providing Highland Village’s community policing. HVPD is the best!

The Emergency Care Attendant program is one that I am proud to see our police and fire team up to provide for our residents. Every police officer is trained with basic life support because they are often the first on the scene of a medical emergency. Coordination between fire and police is a must–it’s all about the first person on scene to provide the assessment on what we need to do and to have the tools and training to make a lifesaving decision for our residents during a time of need.

What I believe truly makes Highland Village stand out from other communities is our quality of life. Over the last 20 years we have worked to provide superior amenities that make Highland Village unique. There is a balance in conservative budgeting and building or adding amenities, we cannot provide everything for everyone. Council and staff have done a good job achieving that balance. Parks, trails, public safety and infrastructure have been a priority, never placing one over the other, but trying to leverage one with the other.

The tunnel under FM 2499 is an example of efficiency. Working with TxDOT, we were able to construct the tunnel with the original road construction then come back a few years later to build the connecting trail segments that allow the ability to go from the east edge of Highland Village to the far west end without ever being on a city street.

The 35 Express project brought the City to the table with our regional and governmental partners, to have our voice heard to mitigate an impact to Copperas Branch Park that provides a regional destination amenity for everyone.

The construction of the Pedestrian Bridge at Doubletree Ranch Park, along with $2.8 million in mitigation dollars for the loss of Copperas Branch Park for five years, could not have been done without a vision of mobility and connectivity with our regional partners and our neighboring communities. We are not an island; we are a community for all.

I am a true believer in the principles identified in a book titled “Blue Zones,” healthy lifestyles, spiritual well-being and exercise. I have also touted the quality of amenities and service we provide and I would challenge anyone to find a better community to live in to meet those principles. It’s a proven fact, parks provide both a positive economic impact to adjacent property and they provide that conduit to explore and enjoy the outdoors for our residents. In building our park system it has taken communication, cooperation, advocacy and even some good luck in achieving our success. The acquisition of both Lakeside Community Park and Doubletree Ranch Park will be the next chapters in the next history book of Highland Village.

I believe we have helped our resident’s transform where they live, work, learn, and play so that the healthy choice is the easy choice. We have implemented permanent changes to our community environment that will affect current residents, but also positively impact the lives of future generations. Highland Village is a healthy community both physically and materially, we have impacted and improved the quality of life for all Highland Village residents.

The honor to serve as City Manager has been a personal fulfillment that cannot be expressed. Yes the distinction, the privilege to represent all of the employees and this city and our accomplishments, I am confident and can say we have made a positive impact in Highland Village. I can also hold my head high and reflect on the words my grandfather preached to all his grandchildren, “As farmers you are nothing more than a caretaker for the next soul that will work the land, leave it better than you found it.”

To my mayors, councilmembers, residents, and to my employee family, job well done!

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