When Mike Gracz was hired as the village’s first full-time administrator 20 years ago, Oregon was going through rapid change.
It was January 1999, and Gracz (pronounced “Grace”) was tasked with dealing with the development of 800 acres that had recently been annexed on the village’s west side, including what’s now The Legend at Bergamont, Alpine Meadows and a large park. That’s basically the size of some Wisconsin communities, he said.
The growth was faster than the village could handle at the time, and the village’s first choice for administrator turned the job down because of it.
With the benefit of two decades on the job, Gracz looked back with good humor when he recounted that he was essentially first runner-up for the job he thinks will be his last stop before retirement.
“I came in second; the first gentleman turned it down,” he said in a recent sit-down with the Observer. “The reason he turned it down, he felt the community was not ready for development.
“And he was right.”
A big part of Gracz’ job is managing the village’s growth. He said 35-45 building permits per year are a good number to shoot for, and the village was processing 90-95 a year during the explosive growth when he started.
Within four months of his hiring, the village was hit with a major flood.
One of the first things Gracz had to do – with the help of longtime public works director Mark Below – was put a hold on new development to make sure staff could handle it.
“Mark Below and I said ‘Time out, we are only doing one thing at a time,’” Gracz recalled. “I would’ve been lost without Mark. Mark and I dealt with all of the development on the west side … (and) spent time buying (flood-affected) houses on Soden Drive and Florida Avenue.
“It took us a lot of time.”
The village’s growth has been consistent since flooding and the Great Recession hit back-to-back in the late 2000s, Gracz said, and is at a point now where village leaders are eyeing a major expansion to the east. They are also in the final stages of adding a full-time planning director, who will spend the bulk of their time planning for the proposed business park across Hwy. 14 and its tax-increment financing district.
Gracz has been on the job here for 20 years but has been involved in municipal government even longer, since 1989, including stops in West Chicago and Libertyville, both in Illinois, and Tomah. Often, board members have much less experience in government than he does, but the administrator serves at the pleasure of the Village Board.
While that could create tension if Gracz disagreed with a strategy the board was pursuing, he said that’s the nature of his line of work.
“That’s life, you have to learn to deal with it,” Gracz said, downplaying the issue. “I’d have a hard time thinking of the rare time — particularly in the last years — that I’ve walked from a board meeting thinking, ‘Why are we doing that?’ The staff and the board are on such the same page.”
Unseen body of work
Gracz has his hands on pretty much everything going on with the village’s government, from the size of landscaping Burger King needs to avoid the ire of the Planning Commission to the interest rates on the village’s debt.
While elected officials are the ones making the final decisions, he facilitates the conversations and helps compile the information various boards use to make those calls.
“It’s like running a private business but we don’t make a profit,” Gracz said. “I’m the chief appointed person in the village. I help run the village — I oversee the department heads … I spend half the year working on the budget, I help (public works director) Jeff (Rau) coordinate development.
“Our goal is to provide the best services we can in the least expensive way in the safest way we can.”
Gracz estimates he spends most of his time preparing for or following up on the night meetings where the village’s business is conducted. When the Village Board passes a motion, he said maybe 20 people have had their say on it, from residents to committee members, and it’s his job to make sure their voices are heard.
Most of the run-of-the-mill work of government is pretty cut and dried, said Gracz, who was hesitant to name particular accomplishments, instead pointing out the importance of ensuring consistent municipal services.
“If we don’t provide good public works and public safety, we’ll get in trouble,” Gracz said. “If your streets aren’t plowed and police and fire aren’t coming, you’re going to hear about it. You call 911, the fire department better show up.”
One thing he did point to was the decision to purchase the homes on Florida Avenue after disastrous flooding in 2007. He credited former Village President Steve Staton’s leadership in deciding to raze the properties that suffered repeated flooding.
“Not everyone would have made that call,” Gracz said, adding that he supported the decision at the time along with the Village Board. “You don’t just do things by yourself.”
As the village readies to grow eastward, and with consistent development on the west side, Gracz thinks the village is in good shape.
He worries, though, that the village has deferred some projects that could all come due around the same time. Gracz points to a state-imposed levy limit that ties tax increases to a municipality’s net new construction, and then before that a board mandate to keep taxes level.
“We’ve been under a tax cap since 2001 or 2002,” he said. “It’s been a struggle.”
Former Village President Gerald Luebke was elected in Gracz’ second year, and he had a policy of trying to keep taxes level. That made it hard to do things like increase staff salaries and led to the village using cost-cutting measures like keeping positions open when someone had retired or moved on.
Gracz said the goal of village leaders is to return employees’ salaries to near the middle of the pack for similar communities and increase business growth to balance the tax base. But there are five projects coming up in the next few years that will require substantial investments, he said, including major road replacements, addressing the library, senior center and village hall and bringing municipal services across Hwy. 14.
“We are light years behind on fixing our buildings,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, we should have spaced this out.”
Gracz sees a challenge moving forward in attempting to accomplish these projects without spiking taxes.
He said another challenge is making sure the village “doesn’t cut itself off” when it crosses Hwy. 14. The village’s identity is tied to its historic downtown, something Gracz said other communities don’t have.
“We’re always going to be a bedroom community, we’re not going to be a community (like) on the south side of Milwaukee with heavy industry,” he said. “It’s important that we’re continuing to grow and we don’t lose the tight-knit community.”