After retiring from careers in the U.S. Army, as a city manager in a small Medina County town and the bustling San Antonio suburb of Selma, Ken Roberts could easily be sitting at home, spending his time at the lake or pursuing whatever hobby he chose.
Instead, he is enjoying working to help make Karnes City the best community it can be, and speaks excitedly of its potential as well as plans to improve infrastructure, attract new businesses, save taxpayer money in the process and help train a new generation of city leadership.
It’s a mission that Roberts, 73, has eagerly embraced and the enthusiasm he shows when talking about plans for the community is evident.
The goals he and other city leaders, including Mayor Leroy Skloss and the Karnes City City Council are working toward, as well as accomplishments already made, definitely didn’t come about by accident, Roberts is quick to point out.
A plan in motion
“It all began with a strategic plan,” Roberts said, adding that Mayor Skloss and the city council hired Texas First in 2016 to come up with the city’s first five-year plan to help determine priorities and as a way to measure progress made.
Roberts, who worked for Texas First at the time, was part of the process and served as interim city manager. Then, when there was an opportunity to hire Roberts on a more permanent basis, the council did so in November 2019.
The list of items the city has worked toward since implementing the five-year plan is impressive, including:
• A major repaving project for Karnes City streets that resulted in $173,185 of improvements in 2017, $273,500 in 2018, $174,150 in 2019 and $361,100 in 2020.
• Replacement of cooling towers at a cost of $792,100.
• Obtaining a $500,000 Downtown Revitalization grant to replace sidewalks from the courthouse to the intersection of Lady Badger Drive and East Calvert. City leaders will have a preconstruction meeting with a Texas Department of Transportation engineer and grant writer on May 7.
• Building a new water tower for $1,354,000.
• Installing 37 new street lights throughout the city.
• Making improvements to the local park and baseball/softball/T-ball fields, with the help of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
• Applying for a $350,000 grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture to repair or replace aging water and sewer lines. An engineering contract for the project was recently awarded to M&S Engineering.
• Refinancing payments of debt service that will save the city more than $2.1 million in interest and reduce the payment time by more than a year.
Building on potential
Roberts said he saw Selma, where he previously served as city manager, grow from a small rural community outside San Antonio to a thriving and bustling suburb that added 6,350 residents from 2000 to 2010.
Although Karnes City is located quite a bit further from San Antonio, Roberts said the growth potential is there nonetheless.
“I truly believe you are going to see the greater San Antonio area continue to grow and you will move from one metro area to another,” he said. “If a community like Selma can experience that kind of growth and transformation, it can be done here, too, on a smaller scale.”
Seeking a new challenge
After retiring from the federal government (his most recent posting was at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston) in 1995, Roberts said he immediately began looking for something else to do.
For a while, he sold cars and was successful at it, earning more doing that than he did before he retired. But the long hours (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week) led him to pursue another opportunity. He was offered a job as city manager of Lacoste in Medina County and learned the ins and outs of city government.
“That was probably the best place for me to learn to be a city manager because you do a little of everything,” Roberts said. “That worked out really well for both of us. I learned about housing and community affairs. We were able to get new houses to replace ones that — there’s no other way to describe it — they were hovels.”
Roberts said his experience as garrison manager at Fort Sam Houston was similar to the role he took on as city manager.
“Those jobs were very similar, and it gave me a chance to see the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.
After working in Medina County, and took on a new role as city manager in Selma.
“That was a fun run but I knew it was growing faster than what I could keep up with,” Roberts said. He trained his replacement and then began working for Texas First as an interim city manager for hire, which eventually led him to Karnes City.
It’s a job he said he has thoroughly enjoyed.
“The mayor, city council and staff this town is blessed to have is incredible,” Roberts said. “The city secretary (Veronica Butler) is now the assistant to the city manager and she is doing a great job.
“It is fun working here — it’s the most fun I ever had at a job, and that’s because of the wonderful support from the council and the city staff here.”
Roberts said coming up with and following through on the strategic plan has made a tremendous difference for the city.
“It has really set the tone for what we’ve been able to accomplish and for the things we are still working to accomplish,” he said. “The best thing is that the council members are all in it for the common good. I’ve worked at other places where that hasn’t always been the case. This community is blessed.”
One of the biggest challenges has been addressing concerns about the community’s water supply.
“The water from Carrizo (the area’s watershed) comes out of the ground at 160 degrees, so we have to cool it,” Roberts said. “We built new cooling towers that bring in the hot water, and when it runs through the system it comes out of the tap at a cool 61 degrees. We literally had an awful system in place before the new towers were built. It was held together with bubble gum and bailing wire.”
An often overlooked improvement that has made community residents and visitors feel safer is the replacement of street lights throughout the city.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it provides a certain level of safety and reassurance, and that’s important, especially to our older residents who may not see as well.”
One challenge the city faces is the lack of affordable housing, something the city is working to change.
“Because of the oil boom a few years back some people got the idea that there’s oil in every piece of dirt — that’s certainly not the case but it made property prices sky high,” Roberts said. “We need more affordable housing. We are hoping to offer property to a developer to build eight to 12 homes at $150,000 to $175,000 each. It’s a start, anyway, and something off the dream sheet.”
Focus on the future
Attracting new businesses downtown to fill vacant buildings and continuing to beautify the community is also a goal.
“With the courthouse as an anchor, I think we can have something nice, and maybe community organizations might want to get involved in the process. We can also spruce up store fronts and by God's grace, we might be able to make something out of it.”
The city has a healthy reserve fund of $6 million to rely on through any challenges, and Roberts said it’s important to keep that in reserve as a hedge against any future needs.
“When I got it, it appeared there were all the components to make this a better place, but not everybody was stepping off on the same foot in the chorus line,” Roberts said. “The good thing about the five year plan is that everybody is on board working to meet the goals. Everyone is now on the same sheet of music, and that’s when you are able to start making a difference.”