Ramírez leaves big shoes to fill

FIREBAUGH -- José Antonio Ramírez, at one time the youngest city manager in California at age 28, is taking 11 years of city managing experience to Livingston.

"When people ask me what my job is like, I usually tell them it's like playing hackie sack and juggling at the same time," Ramírez told 300 Firebaugh residents who showed up at a recent farewell luncheon.

Ramírez, now, 39, served as Firebaugh city manager for eight years, and was Orange Cove city manager for three years prior to that. Ramírez was Firebaugh's first Latino to hold that position.

The native of Guadalajara, Jalisco, México was instrumental in getting $35 million in state and federal funds for Firebaugh projects, including a $2.3 million state grant that allowed the city to replace dilapidated water pipes. That solved problems with low water pressure, weekly water pipe breakages, major water losses, business retention and attraction, and escalating water system costs.

Firebaugh leaders said Ramírez was successful because he had a higher vision for the community.

"José was caring, concerned and compassionate. He was a leader, role model and inspiration to everyone around him. He will be missed," said Dr. Willard Clark of the West Hills Community College District.

Ramírez says he will miss the people of Firebaugh the most.

"I loved going to work every day. People don't realize that everything that happens in the community goes through my office. What I do or fail to do has a positive or negative impact on the community and I am always striving that it be a positive," said Ramírez.

As the new city manager for Livingston, he has already established a list of ambitious goals.

"I want the city to become the jewel of Merced County. I know it's going to take time and effort -- and it's not going to be easy -- but that's my goal," said Ramírez, who started his new job this week.

One of Ramírez's most satisfying projects in Firebaugh was a community garden pushed by promotoras (women who promote health and other issues within the community). The city council agreed to lease seven acres to the group and provide free water. The group sold its fruits and vegetables at the downtown farmer's market.

"It has been a success ever since," said Ramírez. "I firmly believe community leaders have a duty to their residents--for the betterment of their lives in every way possible."

Leaving Firebaugh was a difficult decision to make, he said.

"When opportunities present themselves, you have to take them. The reason I took the job in Livingston was because I was receiving calls and e-mails from close friends, colleagues and others I didn't even know saying that I would make a good fit for the city of Livingston and they encouraged me to apply for the position. When people you don't know start recommending you for a position, you have to believe you are doing something right," said Ramírez.

Firebaugh, whose population is 70 percent Latino, presented Ramírez with issues ranging from water supply to lack of recreational opportunities for residents.

"There were a lot of challenges when I first arrived in Firebaugh" said Ramirez.

He partnered with the Greenlining Institute, Relational Culture Institute, PG&E, Comcast and several local banks to design and develop the San Joaquín Villas Project, a development featuring 21 affordable family homes.

Three years ago, he focused on the impact that water losses was having on Valley farmers and their workers.

"It was important to address these issues because it depended on the jobs and livelihood of our people," said Ramírez.

The city used $1 million in Safe Routes to School funding to improve the safety of children walking to and from school by fixing sidewalks, curbs, drainage inlets and replacing gutters. Crosswalks also got wireless lighting and were made accessible for the handicapped.

Last year, Ramírez obtained $3.5 million in grants to design and construct Maldonado Park. The regional park features areas for skateboarding, soccer and softball.

"Everything that I have helped facilitate has been for the community and it's residents," said Ramírez about the projects.

"My success is not a result of my efforts alone. I am most proud of being able to bring together organizations, advocacy groups, community coalitions, leaders and residents toward achieving one main goal and that is to make our community a better place," said Ramírez.

Early on in his career, he initiated the formation of the Firebaugh Community Coalition, a non-profit organization made up of 17 representatives from civic clubs, schools, nearby cities, churches and other community-based organizations to serve as a mechanism to support each other on grant opportunities.

"When we came together, it didn't matter what grant we applied for or how much it was worth. The most important part was that it made its way to the City of Firebaugh," said Ramírez.

To this day, they meet once a month to discuss current projects and long-term goals.

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