Iowa to Vermont and Points In Between:
Q & A with Joe Colangelo, MPA’06
Town Administrator of Hinesburg, Vermont
After a “less than stellar academic performance” in his first two years at Iowa State University, Joe Colangelo decided to leave college, uproot himself from his home state of Iowa, and chart a new course. It turned out to be the best move he ever made. Before the age of 30 — because of hard work and wise personal choices — Joe’s built an impressive resume in local government management that includes his current position as town administrator of Hinesburg and his previous job as assistant manager of Middlebury, Vermont.
Explain “less than stellar academic performance.”
Joe: I had a 1.7 GPA my final semester at Iowa State. That's plain awful! I think they give you a 2.5 if you're breathing. It wasn't that I didn't care about school, or that I was spending too much time partying. It was just a byproduct of going to college without having any true direction and purpose. The only positive I can draw from those two years is that they went so poorly I felt forced to make drastic changes in my life in order to make a better future for myself.
What did you do after you left Iowa State?
I spent a year with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. I was so adamant to get into the program—and get out of college—that I called the Washington, DC office every day for nearly a month to find out the status of my application. They got so sick of hearing from me that they finally asked me to pick the assignment I wanted and told me I didn't need to call them back again. That year was the turning point in my life. I taught kindergarten in an inner city school in Baltimore, built houses with Habitat for Humanity, worked with outdoor wilderness camps, trained and was certified as a national wildland firefighter, and worked with the National Guard and a crew of firefighters on a FEMA disaster relief mission in rural Virginia. I matured as a person and developed strong leadership skills. After AmeriCorps I moved to Brooklyn and enrolled at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was a totally changed student. I went from a 2.0 to better than a 3.5 GPA. I also found a full-time job at the New York Public Library as a technical researcher while I was attending school full-time. It was a lot to juggle, but I was able to handle it all and still enjoy the city.
Why did you decide to head upstate to attend Rockefeller College and
what was your experience here like?
Joe: After I finished my bachelor's in philosophy at Hunter, I wanted a master's degree with a more professional focus in order to strengthen my resume. I applied to five public policy schools but ended my search as soon as I was accepted at Rockefeller. Rockefeller College appealed to me because of its value as an in-state school, the fact that it was nationally recognized, and because it offered me the opportunity to concentrate in accounting, economics, and public finance. The emphasis on the internships at Rockefeller was a huge plus for me. I spent an entire year interning in the Classification and Compensation Unit of the New York State Department of Civil Service. I made a good decision in concentrating in public finance and economics. When I was interviewing for the jobs I ultimately got, I found those were skill areas that a lot of the other applicants didn't have. The courses I took in municipal debt finance and financial management have been critical to my success as a professional. I use the skills I acquired in those classes almost every day.
How did you get the job as assistant manager in Middlebury?
I was fortunate to land a yearlong internship with the Town of Barre, Vermont during my final semester at Rockefeller. I was able to work out a plan with my professors that let me finish my degree and accept an internship in Vermont, three hours away from Albany. I enjoyed the internship from the moment it started. I really thrived with the variety of work that I was able to get my hands on working at the local level. I just happened to sit next to Middlebury's town manager, Bill Finger, who is a Rockefeller alum himself, at a conference when the assistant's job was available. That meeting led to the job offer. Middlebury was an exciting place for me to start my professional career. It's a dynamic little college town with a complex network of interested parties. As soon as I arrived in Middlebury, I started work on a large project—the Cross Street Bridge. I put together all the financial models for this $16 million project that was to be completed using 100 percent local financing. I did all the analysis of what the paybacks would look like for a $16 million bond over 30 years. Half of the financing came from Middlebury College and half from implementation of a local option tax. That required going through town charter changes, holding a number of public meetings about how the tax was going to work, and showing that if you implemented the 1 percent local option tax, the revenues generated would be enough to pay back the bond with the support of Middlebury College, without a further increase to the already high property tax. I gave a number of public presentations on how the financing would work and became an expert in Vermont municipal bonds.
Do you consider the bridge your biggest accomplishment so far?
I would be surprised if anything ever topped that. I feel honored that I was able to be part of a project like that, especially so early in my career. It's a very handsome bridge and it's heavily used. I was able to be part of everything from the financing to the actual design of the bridge. It solved the traffic problems we said it was going to solve. People are happy with it. I think the community took pride in the fact that we did it on our own without any help from the state or federal governments.
What’s on your agenda in Hinesburg?
Hinesburg and Middlebury are vastly different communities. Hinesburg is more rural and its population is smaller but, unlike Middlebury, it is part of the greater Burlington area so I'm able to work on more urban issues. One project on the horizon is to implement commuter bus service from downtown Burlington to Hinesburg. Also, there are more regional economic development issues in Hinesburg because it is closer to the only true urban center in Vermont. In June I helped secure a $550,000 Community Development Block Grant to help a business relocate to Hinesburg. That will help add much needed manufacturing jobs to the area. Furthermore, I will use the grant payments to start a community revolving loan fund in Hinesburg to help new and existing businesses. I think it's important to keep my own aspirations out of it as much as I can. I focus on having the right mechanisms in place to deal with what could be coming. For example, my first month on the job I implemented the Hinesburg Sustainable Economic Development Commission which will put together a comprehensive economic development plan for Hinesburg and have responsibility for the new revolving loan fund that will be created from the Community Development Block Grant. One aspiration I do have is to promote a healthy and supportive work environment for all town employees. I place a high premium on workplace satisfaction. I like to do team-building exercises with the staff and I work to promote a productive and energetic workforce. I like to be around happy people.
Are you happy with the choices you’ve made?
Yes. Since I got my degree at Rockefeller, I've had nothing but upper management jobs. There's definitely a lot of responsibility that comes with that — which I enjoy— but I also am able to be in charge of my own hours and set my own schedule. I think of it as being the CEO of a company. The company just happens to be a town. That's really how I try to attack it. I like talking to people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds and I get to do that every day. I'm talking with engineers, landscape architects, CPAs, attorneys, and business owners. Local government is exciting. Every day is different and I can't imagine it being any other way. I try to take advantage of all the outdoor activities here in Vermont. I go hiking every week and I go skiing in the winter. I've been able to find that work-life balance that makes me happy. Without the Rockefeller degree that wouldn't have happened.