by Dennis Dalman
People then and people now are what Mary Degiovanni enjoyed most and still enjoys about her longtime job serving the city of Sartell.
Degiovanni announced she will retire as early as July after 16 years as a city-staff employee. She was financial director and city administrator, and for numerous years held both of those jobs at the same time. Her retirement announcement stunned many, the same way many were stunned when longtime Planning and Development Director Anita Archambeau resigned last year to move to Tennessee, her husband’s place of employment.
In an interview with theNewsleader, Degiovanni said what she liked best about the job.
“People,” she said. “No one would call me an extrovert, but honestly the people in Sartell are just so great. No matter how big or small the project or the decision, the (city) council and staff are able to talk to people in Sartell and get common-sense input or help in actually implementing ideas.”
And the most challenging aspects of her job?
“It’s been our fast growth and the impacts that has on the community in everything from infrastructure to neighborhood livability,” she said. “I think most people in Sartell want to see us grow our tax base to help hold down taxes, but I’ve never thought the local community wants to see us grow as fast as we can. Fast growth is something that happens when you have such a desirable community, but it’s not a goal we should be striving for.”
Degiovanni credits former Mayor Sara Jane Nicoll and current Mayor Ryan Fitzthum with having a lifelong familiarity with Sartell, which helps steer the city in the right direction.
“They both lived in Sartell during their school years,” she said, “and they both experienced the benefits of having great schools and safe neighborhoods so they both prioritized maintaining the community strengths of Sartell. So I’m really happy about the direction the council is going and the great things that are going to be happening in Sartell – not just some strong commercial tax base we hope to do in the next few years, but a renewed focus on our neighborhoods and how to best deal with quality-of-life issues people face every day.”
In the past few decades, Sartell experienced giant spurts of growth that caused benefits and drawbacks. Some of the benefits were commercial and industrial developments, but a drawback was how to fund so many things that those developments require, such as infrastructure and roads. It called for a constant balancing act between revenue and expenses, but the city managed to do it successfully year after year.
Time and again, Sartell received excellent annual audits and topnotch bond ratings from bond-rating agencies. Degiovanni was often singled out in audit reports as keeping the budget in line with expenses, but she herself credits the hard work of the city councils and city staff to keep expenses down and budgets frugal. She also credits the newest financial director, Heidi Ostlie, for doing a “stellar job” in managing city financial matters.
“That (financial health) has been a communitywide achievement,” she said.
Fast growth, however well the city managed it, should never be a goal in and of itself, Degiovanni said she believes.
“I don’t think most people are interested in how quickly we can double in population again, and neither is the council,” she said. “They are working toward high-quality steady growth and putting some focus on the folks who are already here and paying the taxes that support our community and our schools.”
Funny, smart, helpful
Degiovanni began her job as financial director in January 2004. Her previous job had been administrator for Annandale.
“I was struck from Day One with how nice everyone was in Sartell – inside the city departments and in the community as a whole. People were funny and smart and helpful.”
Calls from the general public, she said, were always so thoughtful and calm, even from those who were bothered by one problem or another. They always asked good questions and explained the problems with understanding and rationality, she noted.
She became city administrator in mid-2013.
“I can literally pick up the phone on any given day and have a choice of Sartell residents or business people to call to ask for help or advice,” she said.
A sense of ownership and pride is so apparent in the city, Degiovanni said.
“You see it in everything from the volunteer youth coaches to the church communities to the Sartell Senior Connection,” she commented. “Look at what Pinecone Central Park volunteers have done with our baseball and soccer facilities, and what the Bernick’s Arena volunteers have done with that great facility for more than 15 years.”
As an example of good partnerships, Degiovanni cited the library within the Sartell Community Center. The library issue caused much controversy several years ago when many residents wanted a full-fledged library in Sartell, to be paid for by half-cent sales-tax revenue. But three of the five council members at that time nixed that idea in favor of a multi-use community center with gymnasiums, senior center, meeting rooms and a library area within. The current library is comprised of lots of donated books and other materials and thanks to an agreement with the Great River Regional Library system, Sartell residents can order online materials in the system that are delivered to lockers in the community center.
“I love libraries,” said Degiovanni. “And there is simply not a nicer library in Central Minnesota than the one our unique partnerships and our Sartell library volunteers have created in Sartell. We literally get calls from other cities asking how we do it, and I honestly respond that our community does it . . . It adds up to millions of dollars in time and talent and funding that makes the Sartell community so strong.”
Degiovanni said she loved her work on various committees and working groups. They include the City-School Working Group, the Sartell-Le Sauk Joint Planning Board, the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp., the Sartell Chamber of Commerce, the Sartell-St. Stephen school district and its Community Education program.
“They are our partners,” she said.
Degiovanni also noted all of the changes Sartell has implemented throughout the years: the expansive medical arts campus, a Metro Bus service, the library, the community policing focus, the Senior Connection, amenities added to city parks, development of a wide and diverse tax base, the interconnected public-private partnerships (including the school district) and remarkable volunteerism that keeps the city so dynamic and exciting.
“We could literally never tax enough to do what these folks (volunteers, partnerships) go out and do each and every day,” she said, “and we would never do it as well as the community is doing it.”
Degiovanni is looking forward to spending more time with her 13 grandchildren, ages 4 months to 14 years. They are the grandchildren of her husband, Jim, a retired attorney, who has three children – Kate, Leigh and Joseph, all living in the St. Cloud/Sartell area. The couple owns a 40-acre hobby farm, and Jim in post-retirement raised organic foods for farmers’ markets and some local restaurants. Degiovanni, too, loves gardening, tending a small flock of chickens and some sheep. The couple and the children love the outdoors: camping, hiking, snowshoeing.
Born in Red Lake Falls, Degiovanni earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Benedict and then began her many years of city work, most especially for Sartell.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.