The future of troubled North Las Vegas rests in the weary hands of a few remaining employees, or so it seems lately.
The city not only suffered massive layoffs as revenues tanked during the recession, but top executives have been leaving in droves. And who can blame them? The city had to trim some $60 million in recent years from its general fund budget and cut or freeze more than 800 positions, leaving it with a staff of about 1,300.
Even state officials, who have the power to take over North Las Vegas's finances, have expressed alarm over the sorry state of the city's dwindling budget.
At least 18 upper-level employees have resigned or have taken buyouts in the past couple of years, including a city attorney, a city manager, a utilities director and both the director and assistant director of finance.
The city hasn't replaced some of those staffers; it can't afford to.
Instead it has consolidated departments and named some lower-tier employees "acting" department heads who are expected to assume the duties of several people.
"It's stressful," Mayor Shari Buck said. "The loss is to the citizens and the services we're able to provide."
It also results in a sort of professional "brain drain" as executives with strong résumés, skills and connections leave the city, said Christine G. Springer, a North Las Vegas resident and director of UNLV's executive master's degree program in crisis and emergency management.
The problem is not unique to North Las Vegas, she said.
"The good people always leave because they have options," said Springer, who also is former president of the American Society for Public Administration. "The city's going to be in a severe situation -- not just financially, but organizationally."
Complicating the issue is that once a municipality is in trouble, it becomes harder to recruit top-notch employees to help bail it out, Springer said.
"People don't want that kind of job because they know they're asking for trouble," she said.
But despite the brain drain, North Las Vegas officials believe they can cope.
Remaining and former staffers say plenty of quality people are left to successfully steer North Las Vegas through choppy waters. They also take issue with the notion that executive-level employees are deliberately ditching the city in its time of trouble.
"I hope that's not the perception," said Maryann Ustick, acting city manager. "If that were true, I probably would have left sooner."
Ustick will be the latest to leave. She has accepted a job as city manager in Destin, Fla., pending negotiation of a contract.
Ustick took over for former City Manager Gregory Rose after his resignation in late 2009. She took another job for a couple of reasons, she said. It was never her career goal to manage a city as large as North Las Vegas. Also, her former position as assistant city manager of development was eliminated during a round of budget cuts. She didn't have a place to fall back to when the city hired a permanent city manager.
The city on Wednesday announced that Timothy R. Hacker, former city manager of Mesquite, will take the reins once his contract is negotiated.
Ustick committed to staying until after June's municipal election. She and others who recently left did so not because of the city's problems but because things simply lined up personally and professionally, she said.
Some executives took buyouts in 2010 because they wanted to help the city and save others' jobs, she said.
"They did it for the right reasons."
Still, the vacancies created challenges for those who remained.
"It was huge to lose our finance director in the midst of all this," Ustick said.
Former Finance Director Phil Stoeckinger took a buyout last year.
And the resignation of former utilities director David Bereskin -- just as the city prepared to open its new $300 million wastewater treatment plant -- brought "a few sleepless nights," Ustick said.
"That is the biggest project the city ever had. He knew it inside and out."
The city made the controversial decision to keep Bereskin on the payroll for a couple of months after he left town in early February for a job as CEO of the Greenville Water System in South Carolina. Officials wanted him to be available for consulting until the plant was complete and ready to open.
The city and Clark County have been fighting in court over whether North Las Vegas has the right to dump treated effluent from the plant into the county-owned Sloan Channel.
Some have suggested Bereskin took the out-of-state job because he knew the local plant was headed for trouble. He did not return a call seeking comment. But Ustick said Bereskin simply happened to score his dream job .
Another tough loss came in early July, when Nicholas Vaskov, acting city attorney, abruptly resigned. In his three-sentence resignation letter, Vaskov said the city's "current political environment" made it impossible for him to "effectively serve and defend the interests of the city and its citizens." He declined further comment, and Ustick said his letter speaks for itself.
"It was very difficult for me when he left," she said. "We worked hand-in-hand."
But in each case, other employees stepped forward to help the city continue functioning, Ustick said.
"We have really good staff who all stepped up and did more than they used to do," she said. "We have staff doing five times more than they were before."
Still, she understands why staffers might be frustrated and fearful.
"I think our employees are worried," she said. "If they have opportunities, they are taking them. I certainly understand that."
Buck said she also understands that if employees "find jobs that are less stressful, they have to do what's best for their family."
Remaining behind are "a lot of good people who have been trained well by those above them," she said.
Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, former assistant to the city manager, left this month for a new job in Maryland after working for the city seven years.
She did not jump ship, she said. Instead, her family did what it had to do after her husband was laid off from his job last year. That job was with the city of North Las Vegas.
"I don't want to make the city sound like the Titanic right now," Bailey-Hedgepeth said. "It was difficult there with the economy. We stayed for a year after he was laid off, but there were more opportunities in other places."
She remains optimistic about the future of North Las Vegas, even as so many top staffers depart.
"There are great, long-term, dedicated employees still there," she said. "There are middle managers who have been there 20 years. The City Council is finding a new direction. Change has always been the only constant in North Las Vegas."
And no one is irreplaceable, Bailey-Hedgepeth said. "Somebody will pick it up and get it done."
That is the upside for staffers who remain, UNLV professor Springer said.
"There's an old saying that crisis brings forth opportunities," she said. "They need to look for a way to take advantage of the changes, because it shouldn't just be, 'We're going downhill. Let's coast.' "
Buck said no one working for the city is coasting.
"We have so many dedicated people," she said. "They deserve a lot of credit."
Despite the city's many recent challenges, there's a "palpable sense" that things are turning around, the mayor said.
"Everybody's working together. We've rallied our troops and are moving forward. We will come back, and we will hire again."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285.