Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, March 31, 2014

Solorza uses nimble administrative skills to serve local residents

Michael Solorza

Michael Solorza is good in a crisis — a fiscal crisis, that is.

As the new administrative services director for the city of Westminster, California, the 1996 alum is figuring out the best way to manage a $3 million gap in the city's $42 million general fund budget.

"My current focus is on the next fiscal year's budget," Solarza says. "In addition, I am reviewing processes and developing new policies in purchasing, credit card use and reserves."

Solorza joined the city of Westminster in November 2013 after a year and a half with the city of La Palma, where he was finance director. There he planned and administered a $20 million annual operating and capital budget. He prepared the annual financial report, and managed the annual audit and year-end closing process. He oversaw a staff of three who handled payroll, accounting, purchasing and accounts receivable.

Solorza's biggest achievement for La Palma was helping the city lower its unfunded liability related to retiree health-care costs. "I worked hard to establish trust with the California Public Employees' Retirement System and develop a plan to pre-fund the trust," Solorza says. "In the end, the city's unfunded liability was immediately reduced by 40 percent and the city was placed on more firm financial footing."

La Palma faced another fiscal gap when a major retail store and sales tax producer closed, resulting in a 20 percent drop in general fund revenue almost overnight. "While it was not wholly unexpected that this retailer would leave, the timing was pushed up, and I had to quickly manage budget reductions less than a month after the budget was adopted," Solorza says. "I had to help each department develop a budget for the following fiscal year that reduced expenditures while attempting to not hurt services to residents."

After graduating from the La Follette School in 1996, Solorza returned to California and started his public sector career as an undergraduate advisor at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of California, Irvine. "I learned lots of good things working for UCI for eight years," Solorza says, "but I wanted — and still want — to be a city manager, hence my pursuit of a graduate degree in public affairs."

He moved into local government and has worked for various municipalities in Orange County, gaining experience and increasing his responsibilities.

As the city of Huntington Beach's senior administrative analyst with the finance department, Solorza prepared the $300 million operating and capital budget, supervised the three-member accounts payable staff, and tracked and forecasted the general fund and special and enterprise fund revenues.

In 2010 Solorza became the budget and research manager for the city of Mission Viejo, where he managed a $122 million budget, oversaw purchasing and administered the year-end closing and encumbrance rollover process.

For Westminster, Solorza's responsibilities include finance — accounting, water billing, payroll, investments, etc., in addition to the budget — and human resources and risk management — recruitment, liability, and workers compensation.

Solorza says he daily taps the writing skills he honed at La Follette, writing meeting agenda reports, policies and other documents. "My writing skills were vastly improved through the courses at La Follette," he says.

He also is grateful for the statistics and economics courses he took at La Follette. "I was never a big fan of hard science," he says, "but I ended up taking another economics class — Economic Sociology — my last semester. In addition to the basic theories of statistics and economics the courses taught me, they provided a greater appreciation of how these disciplines are used (and misused!) in our daily lives."

Solorza says he chose La Follette because of the program's small size. "Having spent my undergraduate years at a major research institute in a relatively large political science program, I wanted to have a more intimate graduate experience," Solorza says. "My entering class in 1994 was less than 30 students (I believe it was 28). This was an excellent opportunity for me to interact with each and every one of my fellow classmates. I still remember taking a course with four other students — and it was held in the 'big' conference room on the ground floor of the La Follette building. I would point to this 'smallness' as a good reason to choose La Follette. On top of that, you have the resources of one of the best public research universities in the world available. It really is the best of both worlds."

"One other good reason to choose La Follette was the flexibility of the program — a good mix of required courses with the opportunity to take relevant courses in other departments," Solorza adds. "I really ended up liking rural sociology and that department's community and economic development offerings."

Another benefit for Solorza was his summer internship with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. "I interned in the community development block grant program office," Solorza says. "I am thankful to have had that amazing experience. Working at that level of government was an eye-opener and provided a perspective I still reflect on nearly 20 years later."

All those experiences reinforced Solorza's intent to work in the public sector. "I have always had an affinity for the public sector and what government can do for people," he says. "I know my actions — even in a small way — positively impact the residents of my city. Even though I work in an 'internal services' function, what I do helps our police and public works departments provide direct services to residents. This is a very satisfying feeling, and I do enjoy contributing in that manner."