When Mindy Patterson started working for the city of Abilene 30 years ago, there were two essential tools to balance a budget: Paper and pencil.
That’s how it was done when Patterson, now deputy city manger, joined the city’s finance department as a backroom accountant, she said.
What she needed to learn, though, went beyond how reports were run or checks written, she said.
“When I came to work for the city, I had no idea what all we did,” she said. “But in a budget, you see everything, and so you learn a lot of things that are behind the scenes that that most people don’t even know we do.”
Always a “numbers person,” Patterson said she’s also a self-described “hometown girl,” born and raised here and never wanting to live anywhere else.
“I think that’s what originally got me started, that knack for numbers,” she said, reflecting on her career path. “But I’m not a sit-and-be-quiet kind of person. So, I had to find my niche.”
Counting on ‘Dos’
Finding her place required the understanding that it was “human interaction that I really need,” Patterson said. That was in addition to an understanding of the mechanics of government.
Often referred to by Mayor Anthony Williams and others in Spanish as “Dos,” indicating her second-in-charge status, City Manager Robert Hanna calls her his “executive officer.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” he said.
Hanna counts promoting Patterson to assistant city manager in 2015 and then giving her the deputy city manager title two years later among his “better decisions.”
Patterson has a “fun and lighthearted spirit that knows the meaning of hard work and how to dedicate time and energy to accomplish a task well,” Hanna said.
“She’s simply indispensable to my leadership team,” he said.
Patterson said she hasn’t had “a lot of jobs” with the city, but being the sort who tends to “find a place and stay” helped her successfully climb the corporate ladder.
Many things continue to make Abilene “home” for her, from how safe and comfortable she finds the community, to the potential see sees in it.
“We’re kind of like that little hidden gem,” she said, often a bit insulated from “boom or bust” issues found in many larger areas.
“We may go up or down a little bit, but it’s not like what (you see in) Midland or Odessa or Dallas,” she said. “I like that. It’s not so drastic one way or another.”
And seeing what the city has become, and what it might be, has been “fun to watch,” she said.
At one point, Abilene had three assistant city managers, Hanna said.
“I don’t see that happening again any time soon, but that’s really a testament to the leadership team we have in place right now,” he said, made up of himself, Patterson and Assistant City Manager Michael Rice.
“Mindy, Michael and I compliment one another’s strengths and weaknesses very well,” he said.
Patterson said she’s grateful for the help and stability that triangle creates.
“We really do have a big organization, and it’s just too much for one person to handle,” she said.
The good thing about all of the work, she said, is the variety.
The city juggles not just managing core services, such as police, fire or solid waste disposal, but quality of life programs that focus on people of all ages, from children to seniors, and amenities such as the Abilene Zoo.
“I may be working on an animal services issue this morning. Then this afternoon, we may have a personnel issue, or we may have a new baby (animal) being born at the Zoo,” she said. “And so, my job is really very different every day. And that’s part of what I like. I don’t think that I would be happy sitting in a desk doing the same thing day after day after day.”
Patterson’s specific departments include human resources, health, finance, transportation, animal services, parks and recreation, Abilene Convention Center, Abilene Public Library system and the zoo.
“I like to say I get all the fun stuff,” she said.
In many respects, what she has spent most of her career doing for the city isn’t dissimilar to what most residents do each month, she said.
“It’s just like a budget at home,” she said of the task of balancing the books.
When she taught budget classes to new employees, a discussion of wants versus needs was most valuable, Patterson said.
“You may want a new car, but that doesn’t mean that your pocketbook that can afford that,” she said. “We’re just (that) on a much, much larger scale.”
The city leans heavily on department directors to outline needs, she said, an approach especially valuable when times get tight and unfunded items are manifold.
But the process doesn’t pit one department against another.
“As group, we decide what is the most important for the whole community,” she said.
The budget process also includes public hearings and community involvement, she said, because “even though we think we may know what the community wants, until they say, you really don’t.”
Council retreats in January in particular provide an “opportunity for the community to say, ‘Yes, we need this,’ or ‘No, we don’t,’” she said.
Bond elections are another way of making sure the people have their say on big-ticket items.
While generally it’s the proverbial “well-oiled machine,” change is a constant, she said.
“If sales tax tanks, we have to be ready to adjust on the fly, you can’t wait till the end of the year,” she said. “And then, because we cannot have an unbalanced budget, you have to adjust as you go.”
Sometimes in the past, that’s meant hard choices, such as delaying raises, not filling vacancies, or putting off buying something to set the scales right.
From Patterson’s perspective, the job never is personal, something that she’s gotten better about understanding now that she’s older.
She never begrudges residents having their say.
“Frankly, I’m glad that we have people that are passionate about certain things,” she said. “… It’s not a slam against me personally. You just have to realize that that’s their passion, and you just have to take it and understand it.”
That said, you won’t find her frequenting social media much.
“Sometimes when people say things, they don’t have all the facts,” Patterson said. “It’s hard for me to filter some of that, I guess, without taking it personally. So, I just choose to not do that.”
Friends genuinely help, and Patterson said she’s had no better one through the years than Linda Smith, who retired from customer service in the city manager’s office, following Patterson there from the finance department.
Patterson said she’s had a lot of “cheerleaders that have had a lot more confidence in me than I’ve had in myself, at times.”
But Smith remains special.
“I cannot say enough about her,” Patterson said. “… She had my back the whole time. She wouldn’t say so, but she’s really made me successful, really made me look really good. And I just appreciate someone you can depend on and knows what needs to be done.”
The relationship was forged the very day Patterson came for her job interview.
Put in front of Smith’s desk, Patterson said only later did she realize her audition already had begun.
“You didn’t know it, but you were being mini-interviewed,” she said.
The reviews were positive.
Smith, who retired from the city about 18 months ago, recalled she was working as the executive secretary in the finance department when a “young lady, bubbly with a great personality,” came to apply.
“In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Man, I hope she gets this job,’” Smith said. “She seemed such a perfect fit, and she seemed so friendly.”
First, they were coworkers.
Eventually, Patterson was her boss.
“Through the years, then, I’ve seen her do pretty much anything she aspires to do,” Smith said. “I’ve seen her take on any job. … A lot of those budgets, they had to make hard decisions. But she was always up for that.”
And Patterson was good about being part of a genuine “work family,” Smith said, one that celebrated birthdays, attended weddings, wept at funerals.
“She does take making Abilene the best city that it can be personally.” she said. “She loves the city. She’s from here.”
That included standing up for her employees, and when necessary, standing up for herself, Smith said.
Patterson also has a talent for delivering news straight, she said.
“It may not be what you want to hear, but she’s upfront about it,” Smith said.
But her general attitude is a can-do one, Smith said, even when it’s tough going.
“I’ve heard her listen to upset citizens,” she said. “… I’ve heard her talk to people about anything to do with the city, and she’s always a professional. She’ll help and listen and do whatever she can.”
And she knows how to celebrate the good stuff, too.
“If sales tax was up when we were in finance, we celebrated,” Smith said.
Hanna said that it’s correct to say city management as a profession is male dominated, although “that is certainly changing.”
“At one point in my career, three out of four of the largest cities in Texas (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin) were led by female city managers,” he said. “Now those cities all have male city managers, which goes to show you that the bench for women in city management positions isn’t all that deep.”
Time and intention will put more women in those jobs, and there are far more women in the profession than before, he said.
Patterson, in any case, doesn’t have any trouble navigating a room that might at times be “full of male egos,” Hanna said.
“Mindy is highly capable, very smart, and exceptionally loyal to the organization and her team,” he said. “You’re in for a rude awakening if you underestimate her or think she’s not up to the task at hand. I’ve worked with none more capable than her.”
Patterson, Hanna said, also can bring a team together and “build camaraderie and good morale quicker than most.”
Patterson said she never has felt being a woman was any particular barrier, each of her previous supervisors being most concerned with her capabilities.
She won’t go so far as to say she “blazed the trail,” she said, though she can remember a time when there weren’t many women who served as department directors.
Patterson, who was a single mother for some time, said she enjoyed the daily challenges, while also balancing family life.
“A lot of the time, I was the only woman in the room when we did the budget,” she said, especially early on.
“But was never treated as the only woman in the room,” Patterson said. “It was based on my capabilities, my abilities.”
Being surrounded by “great” people in all of the departments she’s been in helped immensely, she said.
“It’s been easy when you have so much support,” she said.
Learning to have fun
When she’s not helping steer the city, Patterson displays a yen for adventure, and a ride on the back of her husband Jason’s Harley-Davidson.
“We went to Sturgis one year,” she said, a motorcycle gathering in South Dakota with a somewhat rowdy reputation. “I think some people were kind of surprised about that.”
Camping and other outdoorsy activities are also favorites, she said.
But her mind never quits, even when spending her time off, and Patterson wants to have a deep understanding of everything she’s doing, even if she’s doing it for fun.
“I want to read and know and understand about everything,” she said.
When she and her husband went on a fishing trip with another couple, photographic evidence emerged of her sitting and reading a manual about how to fly fish, for example.
“I don’t want to just get out there and wing it,” she said. “I need to understand, I want to know.”
As far as family life, her youngest of her three sons just went to Texas Tech, she said.
“I’m empty nesting it, and I’m loving it,” she said. “… I feel that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They’re supposed to go, and they’re supposed to flourish. And I’ve done a good job so that they can do that.”
She describes herself as a “good boy mom.”
“I’m not really into all of that girly stuff myself,” she said.
In some ways, her children were raised in her office. Summertime, especially, is the height of budget discussions.
Thankfully, Smith and others would on occasion watch out for them while Patterson was in a meeting, and in general, she said, she’s been “blessed” to work around bosses and people that are family-oriented.
Her job never really has been 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, she said, and it helps that there’s been understanding at home.
“I’m blessed that my kids understand that, that my husband understands that,” she said. “We may get a call in the middle of the night that something’s going on or whatever.”
But if she’s needed to leave early “because I have a kid that needs to go to the doctor,” or there’s a school program, a soccer game, etc., she’s always been supported by her fellow city employees.
“What was important to me was important to them,” she said. “This is my job, it is my career. But my family is the number one priority. I’ve been really blessed, and so I appreciate that flexibility.”
As for the future of Abilene, Patterson wants “more of what we’re doing right now,” with a focus on realistic growth.
“We’re not going to ever be a Dallas/Fort Worth — and really, do we want to be?” she said.
The city does a “really good job with what we have to work with,” Patterson said.
“And as the tax base gets larger, of course, we have more (funding) to do to do things with,” she said.
She wants to see Abilene remain a “great place to live,” filled with people with “great hearts,” including the sort of people she works with daily.
“There are so many exciting things coming up,” she said. “I would hope that that would be our legacy, that we don’t just stop and get stale. … Even though we do a good job, it’s important that we realize that we can always do better.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
More about Mindy
Family: Husband, Jason Patterson
Children: Dylan Whisenhunt, Damon Whisenhunt, Dixon Whisenhunt.
City of Abilene
►Deputy city manager, June 2018-
►Assistant city manager, November 2015-June 2018
►Director of finance, October 2008-October 2015
►Deputy director of finance, February 2007-September 2008
►Assistant director of finance, October 1995-February 2007
►Assistant to the director of finance, October 1994-October 1995
► Accountant, September 1991-October 1994
Condley & Company
►Auditor, March-September 1991
►Abilene High School
►Bachelor of Business Administration, accounting/finance management, McMurry University, May 1991.
►Certified public manager, public administration, Texas State University, San Marcos, December 2005.