Finding Local Government With Karl Knapp, Town of Cary, NC

What was your local government moment? What keeps you in local government? Who have been the influences in your career? We take a deep dive into these questions by asking you (the practitioner) to tell your local government story. You can sign up to participate in the bi-monthly feature at Finding Local Government. Thanks to Matt Wojnowski, City of Altus, OK, for developing and coordinating the feature.


By Karl Knapp (LinkedIn, Cary, NC, ELGL Profile)
Budget Director at Town of Cary, North Carolina

My journey to local government started with my father, a political scientist and university administrator who inspired me to seek the ideals of both Roosevelt’s New Deal and Kennedy’s New Frontier. As a teen, these ideals didn’t exactly motivate me to be a local government budget director. I was much more interested in working on political campaigns eventually making grand changes to national policies.

During college, I majored in government and interned with my member of Congress and the Brookings Institution. After graduation in 1987, I hoped to work as a Congressional staff member, but wound up working in the halls of Congress as a member of the governmental relations staff for an association that represented college financial aid administrators. In this role, I learned a great deal about the federal budget process, but realized that I liked politics much better as a spectator sport than a participatory one. I also came to know many college aid administrators who devoted their lives to helping people achieve the dream of a higher education. I decided that I wanted to be someone who made a difference directly in people’s lives, and I choose to pursue an MPA at Syracuse University with the goal of working in State or local government.

Unfortunately, I finished my MPA at the start of the 1990-91 recession and the best job I could find was as a budget analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice. The three and a half years that I spent there taught me about analysis and management, but they also reminded me that I wanted to be more directly connected with the citizens that I served. I began searching for a job in my wife’s home state of North Carolina, where we had decided to raise our children.

While local government budget offices didn’t see my federal experience as relevant to their work, the state legislature’s non-partisan fiscal research staff did. I spent the next four years estimating the fiscal effect of tax legislation and assisting the appropriations committees with the development of the budget. Some of the projects that I worked on were significant, such as a major income tax cut and the development of a passenger rail corridor through the heart of the state.

Others were more mundane, like establishing staffing standards for driver’s license offices and ensuring that new positions were provided to meet those standards. Some of these mundane projects were the ones that gave me the most satisfaction, however, because I could see the immediate effect that they would have on how government served its citizens.

Karl Knapp QuoteI became determined to move into local government where my work would have a direct impact on the lives of other. I went to work for the city of Winston-Salem in the budget office and later the city manager’s office. After four years, I came to realize that the community’s culture and political climate were not a good fit for me and I began to search for new opportunities. When I reached out to a former colleague who was an Assistant Secretary of Revenue to ask her to be a reference, she asked if I would like to work for her as the director of tax policy analysis for the department. Returning to state government was not my plan, but I relished the prospect of working on important issues for someone that I knew and respected.

I began managing an office that faced problems with morale and reputation because my predecessor had been so focused on perfection that the office produced very little timely or relevant data and analysis. The staff wanted to do good work, but felt restrained by her micromanagement of their work. By empowering the staff and providing a vision that we would have information ready and available before people even knew they needed it, I was able to make the office relevant again. After five years in the job, I began to realize that I had taken the office as far as I could. I needed a new challenge.

Having placed myself in a state government role that had no local equivalent, I did not see a clear path back to local government. As fate would have it, I was speaking the director of research and policy analysis at the North Carolina League of Municipalities and learned that he planned to retire in a year and was seeking someone who could work with him for a year and then take over the job. This was a great chance to get back into local government by providing municipal officials with the research and advice they needed to do their jobs well.

Working at the League was a great experience, but it came at a time when municipal government was under increasing assault by forces in the state legislature that saw it as a threat to citizens rather than the expression of their will for the community. As those forces gained a majority in the legislature, my work became more and more focused on fighting political battles, rather than assisting city and town leaders and staff. After seven years, I wanted to get back in the trenches and took the opportunity to serve as budget director for the town of Cary.

The last 29 years have taught me several valuable lessons about a career in government. Dreams and goals will change over time, and this is not a bad thing. You will be a different person at 30 or 40 than you were at 18, and your ambitions should reflect those changes. Also, your career will not always take the path that you planned, and sometimes following your intended path can lead to places that are not right for you. When either of these things happen, see it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and find your best next step. Finally, some opportunities may come when you most need them, others when you least expect them. Consider your choices carefully in either circumstance.