In two-and-a-half years under the James Snyder mayoral administration, the city of Portage has certainly become more financially efficient, turning a financial deficit of $900,000 into a $2.1 million surplus.
“Portage is a blue-collar, hard-working community,” Snyder said. “We aren’t a luxury community. Everybody works hard - they are prudent and want their leadership to be the same way.”
Pulling off a turnaround that quick wasn’t easy for Snyder, a Republican Mayor who was elected to his first term in 2011 in traditionally a Democratic city. A number of tough decisions had to be made, many of which changed the way several city departments and employees had been doing things for years.
“We automated our garbage system to where the driver also operates the joystick where he used to just drive,” the Mayor said. “Landfill costs have gone down significantly (by about $300,000 a year), health insurance has flatlined and employee costs have decreased as well.”
Many of those changes took place right off the bat - beginning on January 1, 2012 when Snyder took office. The first year of his administration was the “corrective” year, Snyder said.
“We needed to first get our financial state in order,” he said. “The change in the garbage system and other changes helped get us to where we are now.”
After the changes were implemented, Snyder said his second year (2013) was one of “communication.”
“It was paramount to let our citizens know why we made the changes,” he said, noting that the administration began sending out newsletters, started up a monthly breakfast discussion for interested residents and enacted a phone system where they could call any resident at a moment’s notice.
The process of change for a city like Portage can take more time than anticipated.
“It is frustrating at times to see things go slowly, but I think in the end it is a good thing that they do move so slow because that makes you stop and think hard about what you are doing and prevent mistakes from being made,” he said.
So some of the benefits of the quick financial turnaround are just now becoming visible for the residents of Portage. In that sense, 2014 is the year of “construction” for Portage, when the city “can utilize the money we saved ” - which includes the building of a Splash Pad at Founders Square, updating and renovating the fire and police stations and investing roughly $7 million in city paving projects.
“It’s exciting need to balance efficiency and excellence,” the Mayor proclaims, noting that in his administration, prior to any decision being made, he asks if it meets both those criteria.
“If those two are balanced, we can see a bright and exciting future for Portage,” he said.
In 10 years, whether or not Snyder remains in office, he sees Portage as “the leader of the region in every aspect.”
“I believe other communities will be asking us how to do things,” he said. “We want to make sure every dollar that is given to us by taxpayers gives is stretched very far and every minute it buys is utilized properly. If we continue to do that Portage will be the leader in the region in every aspect. Making sure we have the right plan for the future is important.”
Inspired by former President Ronald Reagan at a young age, Snyder was ambitious enough to buy his first home (in Portage) at the age of 20. Born in West Virginia and growing up in both Port Huron, Michigan and South Haven - Snyder quickly moved up in the mortgage industry, first managing and now as the owner of Preferred Capital.
“Our family lived in South Haven while we were growing up, and people of South Haven typically shop in Portage. That’s when I first knew of the city and when it came time to buy a home, it seemed like the best place to do that,” he said.
But in 2007, longtime city councilman David Highlands seemed to be a strong Republican candidate for Mayor, but passed away early in the race.
“Our party needed someone to pick up the mantle and run. I was their choice," Snyder remembers.
But a campaign that would not begin until July was just a bit too late for him - this time. Snyder lost to Democrat Olga Valazquez by 301 votes in the general election.
“We didn’t have a lot of time and a lot of people didn’t know me then,” Snyder said.
But the second time, things would be different. 2011 pitted a rematch in the general election, and this time it was Snyder prevailing by a margin of 248 votes.
“We worked really hard, started earlier and talked to a lot more people one-on-one,” he said. “The first time (2007) was important because that’s when we started to get the fire in our belly and realize that we can make a positive difference in Portage.”
The result of the 2011 election is a more efficient, and excellent, city.
On his desk at City Hall is plaque that has a Ronald Reagan quote that sums up his view as the leader of a city that has made great strides in Northwest Indiana.
“There is no limit to what man can do if they aren’t concerned about instant credit,” it says.
“That has been one of our mottos since the beginning, as we just want to do the best thing we can every time and make the best decision for the city,” Snyder said.
While decisions can be tough and often second-guessed, Snyder has transitioned from a successful early career in the private sector to a strong leader that has instantly flipped his city from the red to the black. Life as the mayor, while challenging, is also rewarding because “you can drive down the streets years from now and look at things that have changed for the better and know you played a role in that.”
“It’s been a blast,” he said.