Surprise City Manager Chris Hillman speaks to a mixed room of city council members, community leaders and concerned citizens during an informal meet-and-greet on Saturday at Surprise City Hall.

Dave Martinez/Daily News-Sun

Having served as city manager in two communities near Salt Lake City for more than a decade and recently taking the reins in Surprise, Chris Hillman says he’s dealt with his fair share of growing pains fledgling cities experience.

It’s been roughly three weeks since Hillman took over for Mark Coronado, community and recreation services director, who had the interim city manager tag for a little more than a year, and the 42-year-old says it’s been an uphill battle full of challenges since he took office.

On his first day as city manager, Hillman worked with the City Council in deciding whether to reach out to banks to see if they would grant Surprise a $40 million loan, which would be paid back over the course of several years to pay off City Hall.

No banks stepped forward, and Surprise wound up acting in the 11th hour May 31 to deal with a new state law that prohibits cities from collecting impact fees to pay for growth-related projects.

By acting before June 1 to memorialize the fact that City Hall and other city projects were tied to debt, Surprise can continue collecting general government impact fees outlawed by state lawmakers to pay for future growth.

But Hillman is no stranger in helping cities transition through periods of tremendous growth. He spoke Saturday morning to a group of residents at City Hall to explain his personal and professional background.

The “dog-eat-dog” world of Washington, D.C. was too much for Hillman, who worked in public relations in the nation’s capital for a few years before returning to Utah to work in the financial sector. He then learned of a career as a city manager and was hooked.

Hillman’s career in government has been in Utah, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University.

From 2002 to 2006, Hillman was city manager of Eagle Mountain, Utah, a city on the periphery, like Surprise, that in a three-year period grew from 6,000 to 18,000 residents.

Like Surprise, Hillman said Eagle Mountain, which “was the Surprise of 10 years ago,” acted and spent too quickly — it went into debt to the tune of $73 million — to pay for public utilities for a growing populous.

“It was a very vicious cycle,” Hillman said of the period from 2004 to 2006, when many young families moved into the city for cheap and affordable housing. The city kept taking on more and more debt to create services for residents.”

Surprise grew — and acted to fund city projects — in much the same manner.

“Any city that issues 7,000 building permits (annually) is astounding,” Hillman said of one year in particular during a population boom in Surprise between 2000 and 2010. “I would venture to say that’s unmanageable.”

His time in Clearfield was a little easier, and he counts financial surpluses through zero-based budgeting as one of his biggest accomplishments. When Hillman started as city manager in 2006, Clearfield had a budget deficit of more than $1.2 million for the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years.

“Clearfield was built out and reached its zenith,” Hillman said, noting he recognizes the challenges Surprise faces because of his tenure in Clearfield, Eagle Mountain and Sandy, Utah. “Surprise continues to grow, but is not quite there yet.”

In the coming days and weeks, Hillman will work with the City Council and other city officials to approve the 2011-12 fiscal year budget, before finalizing the redistricting process to ensure all City Council districts have equal representation and every citizen is fairly represented.

Hillman, who’s taking up residence in a rental home, also plans to move his wife and three children to Surprise from their Utah home by the end of next week. On July 11, the Hillmans expect to close on a home in the planned community of Sierra Montana in southern Surprise.

“We’re all excited and looking forward to it,” he said.

Besides meeting all city employees, Hillman has also visited with the city managers in Phoenix and Peoria, as well as representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation and Regional Public Transit Authority to ensure Surprise has a voice in more regional efforts.

“Surprise is now the 10th-largest city in Arizona, and we must become an effective player by understanding issues and working collaboratively with other cities,” Hillman said. “The West Valley can sling more weight than ever before. We want to be a force to collaborate with, not just reckoned with.”

Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or

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