Joe Dickson has been Santa Fe’s city manager for more than half the city’s history and now he’s retiring.
This time, he’s serious, he said.
“This is about the fourth time I’ve said I’m going to do it, but I really am this time,” Dickson said.
Dickson turned 70 in June, just after the anniversary of the May 18, 2018 Santa Fe school shooting. Mayor Jason Tabor asked Dickson to stay until the anniversary, Tabor said, then put out a request for proposals for a search firm to hire a new city manager.
The shooting profoundly affected everyone in town, whether or not they knew someone personally who was hurt or killed, and impacted the town as a whole, Dickson said.
Ten people were killed and another 13 people were injured in the shooting.
“It’s really hard to say anything about that,” Dickson said. “It affected everybody because it was here — that happens somewhere else, not here.”
The way the community has come together to work through its collective grief, creating the Santa Fe Resiliency Center to help with healing, is testimony to Santa Fe’s strength, Dickson said.
And though the city has grown significantly, it remains a peaceful place, Dickson said.
Growth in Santa Fe has been fueled in part by county residents finding League City and the Clear Lake area too busy and heading down to Santa Fe for quiet, open spaces instead, he said.
“We’re still a quiet community, a bedroom community with a hometown feel,” he said, crediting good planning and zoning with the town’s organized growth.
Looking back at his 22 years managing Santa Fe, that growth is what impresses Dickson most.
“When I got here in 1996, the population was about 9,500; I think the road sign said 8,944,” Dickson said. “Now it’s about 13,500.”
Born as a result of avoiding annexation to neighboring Hitchcock, Santa Fe incorporated in 1978, absorbing unincorporated Alta Loma and parts of the Arcadia community. Since Dickson came to town, Santa Fe has annexed six surrounding areas, expanding the town’s footprint from 12 square miles to around 16 square miles.
“As I recall, there were only two subdivisions then, and now I think we have 12 subdivisions in the city,” Dickson said.
Looking back on his years at City Hall, Dickson noted changes in Santa Fe that he was part of including the passage of a half-cent sales tax for water, sewer and drainage projects that’s led to a $4.5 million sewer project underway now and a $2.5 million water project expanding water services throughout the city.
“That’s really gonna help economic growth,” he said.
Another half-cent sales tax has helped the city as well, knocking 9 or 10 cents off local property tax rates, keeping them low for homeowners and businesses, Dickson said.
“We’ve seen the widening of FM 1764 and just completed widening of FM 646 in the city,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of traffic that comes through.”
The city passed its first bond five years ago for construction of a new police station and municipal court, transforming Santa Fe from a “pay-as-you-go” city to one, now, with an official debt, Dickson said.
Then there were the city’s challenges that Dickson witnessed during his 22 years in Santa Fe — hurricanes, tropical storms, train derailments and the shooting.
“We made it through all of them,” he said.
Originally from Amarillo, Dickson moved first to Rotan, near Abilene, then south to Leander, near Austin, before coming farther south to Santa Fe nearly 23 years ago. Every move has brought him a little closer to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
“I joke with people, saying if I move again I’ve gotta get a house boat,” Dickson said.
But he has no intention of leaving Santa Fe, now his permanent home and a city that with a low tax rate, low crime rate and good schools is just a comfortable place to live, Dickson said.
The Santa Fe City Council will choose a firm next week to conduct a national search for Dickson’s successor. The next council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 22.
The city’s plan is to have a new city manager in place by Jan. 1, 2020, when Dickson will officially be retired, Tabor said.