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What is a city manager? City manager salary, job description and more

By Cooper Nelson

At a glance

  • A city manager works closely with the mayor, town council and department leaders to ensure the smooth and efficient operation of a city.
  • Duties of a city manager include budgeting, overseeing staff, city planning and communicating with the citizenry and town council.
  • City managers are hired, not elected, and should have a range of public administration skills, such as project management, public speaking and financial literacy.
  • University of Phoenix offers a Master of Public Administration degree that explores such topics as finance and accounting theories, public policy and organizational management.

What is a city manager?

No matter how small the town or big the city, it takes a team of people to keep everything running smoothly. With so many departments working for the city government, it’s important to have a city manager as a leader.

The city manager, also known as the city administrator, works closely with the mayor. However, while the mayor is an elected official who deals with the political side of city politics and is the public face of the government, the city manager works behind the scenes to help the town thrive. 

The city manager works with the mayor, the department heads and the town council to make sure the city is serving the best interests of the people who live there. A city manager is hired by the town council or by the mayor with the approval of the town council. Once hired, the city manager works to fulfill the executive and administrative duties of the municipal government. 

Duties of the city manager

The city manager fulfills a wide variety of duties. Depending on the size of the city government, they may have the help of various department heads and assistants. The duties of a city manager include: 

  • Financial planning and budgeting: While the yearly budget for a town or city is approved by the mayor and the city council, it’s put together by the city manager and their staff. This budget must account for the needs of that fiscal year while also acknowledging and planning for the city’s goals and projected growth in the long term. 
  • Coordinating and supervising staff: The city manager works closely with the heads of various departments, such as law enforcement, parks and recreation, health and more. These departments handle specific tasks daily, but the city manager provides general supervision and brings the department heads together to facilitate interdepartmental communication and cooperation. 
  • City planning: Cities are constantly evolving. A city manager’s job is to see how the city can change for the better and implement programs, events and citywide initiatives that facilitate positive change for the benefit of the people who live there. 
  • General administration: Every city has a hierarchy and a structure. The city manager’s job is to make sure that, from an administrative standpoint, the city is running according to established policies and laws. 
  • Communicating with the citizens and town council: While the mayor is the most public face of the city government, they often have certain political aspirations that they keep in mind during their term. The city manager is in the position to be able to listen to the citizens, hear their concerns and suggestions, and propose solutions to the city council. 

While many jobs require a person to be a specialist, a city manager is required to be more of a generalist. They work with people of all walks of life and professional backgrounds to make their city a great place to live. 

Working in public administration can feel like a calling. Learn more about what’s involved in this career path!

How to become a city manager: qualifications and job requirements

How does someone become a city manager? These professionals are appointed to their positions, so they must possess a certain set of skills, education and experience to meet the qualifications for this important job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) characterizes city managers as “chief executive officers of governments,” responsible for overseeing budgets, programs and performance of a city. Let’s look at the skills and education you should consider if you’re interested in becoming a city manager.

Important skills

A city manager is responsible for many tasks. With those tasks comes a wide range of skills required to perform the job well. A city manager can benefit from the following skills: 

  • Communication: A city manager will have to be able to write and speak well. This includes writing articles for the local newspaper, leading meetings with department heads, speaking with the town council and leading town hall meetings with citizens. 
  • Fiscal management: Understanding how to create a budget (and use the appropriate digital tools to do so) is a vital part of being a city manager. This involves a certain level of financial literacy. A city manager needs to be able to problem-solve if the city is over budget for the fiscal year. 
  • Diplomacy and leadership: Every department within a city has its own priorities and agenda. The parks and recreation department may want more money for a new playground, while the fire department may request funds for a fire station expansion. The city manager has to facilitate conversation among the departments, promote teamwork and make peace when certain projects have been postponed or when funding is denied. 
  • Project management: While the city manager might not be working directly on every project in the city, they do need project management skills. Keeping projects on schedule and on budget is an important part of the job. 
  • Public speaking: While not as public a figure as the mayor, the city manager does have to speak in front of the public at times. This could be a speech at a city council meeting or the opening remarks of a town hall meeting. A city manager may need to be interviewed on the radio or local news as well. 

City managers learn these skills in a variety of ways, often through a mix of education and work experience. 

Education and degrees

According to BLS, public sector executive roles typically require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but these roles may not have education requirements to be considered for employment. BLS notes, however, that many of these professionals often have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. That said, top executives in the public sector may want to consider a degree in business administration, public administration, law or the liberal arts to learn the skills required for public service.

To learn skills like communication, public policy, leadership, problem-solving and financial management, aspiring city managers could consider pursuing a Master of Public Administration.

For those with a bachelor’s degree seeking to further enhance their education, they might want to consider continuing to hone their skills through work experience within a city government and an advanced degree. While not necessary for employment in this profession, a Master of Public Administration can help expand one’s knowledge on public policy, citywide financial planning, population leadership and management of service organizations. 

Experience and work history

Before being hired as a city manager, a person normally needs to work in city government and in leadership positions. BLS does not provide a range for how much work experience is needed to be considered for this role, and it may vary by the city. If you’re interested in applying for a position, inquire with the city about the education and experience requirements.

To gain experience, you should consider a few similar roles in city government that can help teach the foundational skills necessary to be a successful city manager. Roles can include being the assistant city manager, the director of community development or the head of one of the city’s many departments. Having experience in positions like these shows the city council that the candidate can successfully lead a staff, make decisions that positively impact the city and work productively within the municipal government structure. 

Job outlook and salary ranges for city managers

Much like education and experience requirements, compensation and employment for city managers can vary widely based on the city. Salary often depends on the population size and gross domestic product (GDP) of a city. A candidate’s experience, education level, skills and certifications can also play a role. Similarly, a number of factors can play into employment. While mayors and governors are elected to office, city managers and county administrators are appointed or hired, meaning employment can vary by city based on turnover and need.  

Salary

As noted, BLS characterizes city managers as top executives, which also includes roles like general managers, superintendents and chief executive officers. For this reason, the annual salary for a city manager in your area may vary from what BLS reports. Keep in mind that city managers overseeing larger cities often make more than those in smaller municipalities. For a more accurate salary range, look at the salaries of city managers or at job postings in your area.

According to BLS, the salary range for top executives was between $60,300 and $208,000 a year in May 2021, with $104,730 as the median salary in the government section. Once again, remember that the size of the municipality and the level of experience and education of the city manager can affect salary.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Job outlook

Overall, BLS projects employment for top executives to increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as average for all occupations. As stated, however, projected growth looks at all jobs under the “top executives” umbrella, and not specifically city managers in the government sector. We recommend searching for job openings in your area or whichever city you wish to be employed to better understand employment opportunities. 

Enhance your skills with a degree from University of Phoenix

If you’re looking to become a city manager or start a career in public administration, University of Phoenix can help. The University offers a Master of Public Administration degree that helps students develop the skills for a career in government policy and management at the local, federal and state levels. The program covers the necessary skills for a city manager, including administrative management, public financing and budgeting, and public programs.

Want to improve your leadership skills? Learn 10 skills inherent to good organizational leadership!