Problem solver: Rojas finds satisfaction in facing challenges

Water Authority leader enjoys chance to resolve issues

lmorris@macon.comFebruary 8, 2014 

Tony_Rojas

Tony Rojas has guided the Macon Water Authority through some turbulent times since becoming its executive director and president 11 years ago.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com Buy Photo

Tony Rojas likes taking on a challenge.

Over and over again during his career, he has gravitated toward taking a job because things needed to be fixed.

It was no different when he was hired as executive director and president of the Macon Water Authority 11 years ago.

“We had a lot of problems, so it was a difficult time,” said Rojas, 52. “We had a lot of sewer problems. Morale was bad for a variety of reasons. ... The reputation of the authority wasn’t so (good) because of the issues and problems we were having with sewer spills, and that impacted morale.”

At the same time, the authority had been without a manager for almost a year and “the board dynamics wasn’t all that good,” he said.

But all of that didn’t matter to Rojas.

When he was named a candidate for the Macon job, he was asked by a newspaper reporter why he would want to come to a place with so many issues.

“I said, ‘Why would you want to go anywhere that didn’t have problems?’” Rojas said. “There is an opportunity to resolve and improve those things. I’ve consciously made that decision during my career.”

He also likes the variety of fixing short-term problems while working on long-range issues.

“One of the things I found out pretty quickly in my career is there are things that have to be accomplished that can take years to do, but you get the gratification of seeing something happen today that needs to be fixed,” he said. “You might get a pot hole fixed in the street today and you could feel good something got done, or you help a citizen who has a specific problem. Now let’s turn around and go build a waste water treatment plant, and it’s going to take you five years to do that.”

The Macon Water Authority -- which has 210 employees, treats and distributes water and treats wastewater -- has a big footprint that stretches into some of the adjoining counties. It takes care of more than 900 miles of sewer lines, 1,600 miles of water mains and 17 elevated and underground water storage tanks.

“My focus and my ambitions are on improving the water authority and our service to the public,” Rojas said.

Professors help point Rojas in right direction

Rojas has always had a strong work ethic: He was mowing grass at the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg when he was just 8.

Rojas lived in the Carolinas until his early teens, when his mother remarried and the family moved to Georgia. By the time Rojas was in high school and college, he earned money watering golf courses at night, washing privately owned airplanes and working as a salesman at a men’s clothing store.

He played golf at the former Shorter College in Rome for a year, “and then I knew I wouldn’t make a living playing golf,” he said. He moved to the former Augusta College.

Initially, Rojas struggled to concentrate on his college studies.

A philosophy professor told Rojas he had a good mind but needed to get his act together.

“He said, ‘You need to make a contribution to society, to this country that has educated you and kept you safe. What are you going to give back to society?’” Rojas recalled. “It never occurred to me what I would give back.”

Rojas decided to take some political science courses and read about the job of city managers, which was described as someone who spends 15 percent of their time doing paperwork and the other 85 percent working with people and solving problems.

“I said, ‘I can do that,’” Rojas said. “I wanted to be a city manager. It was a very conscious decision.”

David Speak, a political science professor at Augusta, also helped Rojas stay focused.

“That’s when I really started studying,” Rojas said. “Then I found out I was smart.”

Speak, who now teaches at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, has stayed in touch with Rojas over the years.

“He was a remarkable kid and now (adult),” Speak said. “He found the resources he needed in order to pull it together.”

Rojas got his grades up and went to graduate school at the University of Georgia, focusing on finance.

Rojas begins career as city manager

Rojas’ first job after college was at what is now the Southern Georgia Regional Commission in Waycross. He audited the books and programs for the Job Training Partnership Act, managed community development block grants and helped write personnel handbooks for local governments.

He had only been in Waycross six months when he was approached about a city manager job in Hawkinsville, but he said he wasn’t ready. About six months later he was approached again about the job and took it.

“I was 25 years old and the youngest city manager in Georgia,” Rojas said. “It was the best place to work.”

That position started Rojas on a 15-year journey as a city manager for three different cities.

After nearly two years in Hawkinsville, he worked in Vidalia for three years.

In 1992, Rojas took the city manager job in Moultrie, and he stayed 10 years. It was the first full-service city he had worked for, which means it had the normal general government but it also owned the utilities, including water, sewer, electric and natural gas systems, he said. While he was there, the city also began providing cable service.

“One reason I moved to Moultrie is it had a strong city manager form of government,” he said. “I liked the stability there.”

Longtime Moultrie Mayor Bill McIntosh said Rojas “did a great job for us. He was very innovative and helped us get a lot of things on track that we needed some help with, (such as) our budget process and getting our finances in order.”

Rojas also learned a lot about utilities in Moultrie and even served on the Municipal Gas Association board.

“I began to notice utility managers and they tended to be less political and more about managing assets and customer service,” Rojas said. “I’ve always considered myself politically astute but not political. It’s important to have good political leadership, but I’m more about being a manager of a public entity. ... So the political decision-making process creates anxiety for me. It stresses me out.”

Rojas began looking for opportunities as a utility manager.

McIntosh said Rojas contributed much to the Moultrie community, and he didn’t want Rojas to leave.

“He had a lot of vision and was a hard worker,” McIntosh said. “He didn’t mind telling you what you didn’t want to hear if that’s what you needed to do. ... He’s not averse to stepping out and doing something that others think is a little risky, but it’s a good idea. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge.”

Focus on utility management leads to Macon

Rojas enjoyed his time as a city manager, but he wanted to narrow his focus.

“When all you do is water and sewer, you can be good at water and sewer,” he said.

Rojas found a vacancy at the Macon Water Authority. Chairman Frank Amerson was looking for a manager, and Rojas got the job.

They worked together about 10 years before Amerson’s death in 2012.

Although Amerson had a reputation of being a gruff and sometimes difficult person, Rojas said the two got along well.

“I was on (Amerson’s) team, and I was always on his team,” Rojas said. “Only once in all the years that we worked together did I tick him off. I was playing the devil’s advocate, and he’d had enough of it and so I went too far.”

Rojas said he misses Amerson’s “business acumen and his vision and obviously, miss him as a friend. ... It’s difficult without his leadership. I learned so much about finances and structuring debt.”

But he said the board and the employees have continued to be good stewards and are building on Amerson’s legacy.

In 2009, Macon won an award for the best tasting drinking water in the country, given by American Water Works Association.

“We win a lot of awards, but that was one of the most gratifying,” Rojas said. “I think everybody knows we’ve got good-tasting water, but to have it acknowledged on the national level was significant.”

Rojas said he enjoys his work at the authority especially when “I know that what I do does make a positive contribution to the community I serve. It is my motivation and it is my reason for working. ... After that, it’s solving problems, fixing things, figuring things out. It’s the little things you do every day. ... The things that excite me don’t excite most folks, and that’s OK.”

Speak, Rojas’ former professor, said Rojas has “just the sort of combination of character traits that would allow him to do (his job) well. He’s very easygoing, he’s easy to talk to, he’s charming. But he also has very strong principles, and he’s gathered a very strong sense of the public good. So he’s committed to public service.”

Speak has been impressed by Rojas’ career.

I think it’s a terrific example of somebody who found something he was good at and a place where he’s comfortable,” he said. “I get the sense that he has been a really important resource to several different communities, and that just makes me happy.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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