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‘We are hired to serve the citizens’

After five tumultuous years, Finance Director John Leisenring retires

BRATTLEBORO—Outgoing Finance Director John Leisenring is leaving the town in better shape than he found it.

Leisenring, who retired Friday after five years of service to the town, leaves former colleagues at the Municipal Center quick to sing his praises as a person who took on a difficult job at a difficult time, and did it well.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag describes Leisenring’s work as “foundation building,” adding that he trained and educated everyone involved in making municipal financial decisions.

That education and strong foundation are his legacy, said Sondag.

“I’ve been privileged to work with him,” she said.

“He was the right guy at the right time, and this was the right job for him — which rarely happens,” said Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray. “I trust him.”

DeGray credits Leisenring with establishing a business-attractive tax stabilization plan for Brattleboro.

“He never pooh-poohed anyone’s suggestions,” said DeGray. Instead, he noted, Leisenring would outline the pros and cons of the possible outcomes.

But, added DeGray, Sondag, and Leisenring’s teamwork made Leisenring’s changes stick.

“Between those two, they provided stability the town needed,” said DeGray.

Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis said she respected and appreciated Leisenring’s calm and patient temperament.

“He helped us [the town] get to a much better place,” she said. “Not anyone would have been able to do that.”

Respect for Leisenring extended beyond the Selectboard to citizens region-wide and across the political spectrum, she said.

On a personal note, Bouboulis said that Leisenring brought his “vast experience in municipal government” to many of their conversations.

“He was a good sounding board” and batted around ideas for bringing town government to a better place, she said.

“I wish him luck,” she added.

Sondag, DeGray, and Bouboulis agreed that Leisenring steered his finance department with a philosophy of respect.

“We are hired to serve the citizens,” Leisenring would tell his staff.

Municipal government can prove frustrating for town officials and employees, especially when it comes to difficult actions like shutting off residents’ water when the bills go unpaid, or during tax sales.

The citizens pay our salaries, he would say, conveying the philosophy that municipal officials need to treat money issues with respect even on the challenging days — days that Leisenring saw plenty of in the early years of his tenure.

The old days

Leisenring arrived in Brattleboro with 20 years of experience working for three municipalities in Indiana, Michigan, and Maryland.

He said that Brattleboro presented more of an opportunity to contribute directly to the town than his previous positions did.

Leisenring took the Finance Director job in town during a messy financial period in the town’s history. The budget’s bottom line boasted a $65,000 deficit, and departments didn’t report their budgets to either former Town Manager Jerry Remillard or the Selectboard.

When he walked out of the Municipal Center for the last time on Friday, Leisenring left behind financially astute municipal officials and a $1.3 million budget surplus.

Remillard hired Leisenring in 2006. According to Sondag, the town went through six “difficult” months without a Finance Director before Leisenring’s arrival.

Sondag, who worked as assistant town manager at the time, took over as acting town manager after Remillard’s resignation in 2007.

Together, she and Leisenring had to bring order out of the chaos in which Brattleboro’s finances were mired at the time.

“There was no budgetary control,” said Leisenring.

According to Leisenring, the general and utility funds carried a deficit. Almost all departments had overspent their budgets. Department heads did not file regular finance reports.

At the close of fiscal year 2005, the General Fund’s deficit reached $65,000, he said.

The town had “credibility issues,” said DeGray, who joined the Selectboard in 2006.

“Over time, John [Leisenring] restored the credibility to the administration,” added DeGray.

DeGray declined to give specifics about the financial context in which Leisenring began work.

“It’s a sensitive area,” DeGray said. “That dog has lied down and stopped barking.”

According to a December 2006 report in The Commons on the town’s financial situation, the general fund showed a $184,000 deficit, there was a $500,000 gap in the sewer and water budget, and the parking accounts had a $232,000 shortfall.

Town officials and employees attributed bookkeeping mistakes and a lack of oversight as the twin sources of the problem.

The story quoted Sondag: “You can’t say, ‘Come balance my checkbook,’ if you don’t write down the check,” said Sondag.

In addition, failure to keep proper accounting records on a $6 million multimodal project brought the U.S. Department of Transportation knocking on the town’s door.

The original state-and-federal-grant-funded project covered construction of the parking garage between Elliot and Flat Streets, and included plans for a passenger platform and bus turnaround at the train station.

A Nov. 21, 2006 account of a Selectboard meeting on iBrattleboro.com showed that the Federal Transit Administration had halted the Union Station portion of the town’s multimodal project due to accounting problems.

Federal auditors spent three years picking apart the project’s records. In some cases, auditors had to build missing documents, Leisenring recounted last week.

One such missing document, he said, was New England Management Project Manager Tom Appel’s contract. The Selectboard approved Appel as manager, but no one typed out a paper copy of the contract, said Leisenring.

The town’s financial books raised citizens’ ire and led to heated public comment at Selectboard meetings.

“[There was] no dishonesty,” Leisenring said. “Just a lack of control and procedures.”

Town officials also used cash instead of borrowing funds for capital projects.

Sondag said that funds the town could have set aside as surplus were used instead to keep the tax rate down, creating an artificially low rate.

The problem, she said, is that when the tax rate did go up, it essentially doubled.

On the surface, paying with cash rather than accumulating debt makes sense, said Leisenring.

In practice, however, not having enough cash in the bank can create huge difficulties. And towns can find themselves limited without a cushion. Also, financial institutions consider a town’s stability, such as how much cash it has in reserve, when issuing bonds, he said.

Leisenring credited Sondag for helping to fix many of the multimodal project’s issues.

After three years of auditing the project, state and federal auditors reduced the $6 million figure they had originally questioned to $28,000 in expenditures that they determined were unauthorized by the grant. The town repaid the money through its general fund, said Leisenring, and then the grant restored the $28,000 to the town.

Leisenring said that he started the job in Brattleboro not caring about the past, which, he said, was “water over the dam.”

Instead, he said, he focused on the future.

Elbow grease

Calling his new job “an interesting challenge,” Leisenring rolled up his sleeves and instituted new work practices in his department.

Leisenring started a purchase-order system, and he urged the town to budget more conservatively and monitor spending carefully so that departments could bring their accounts in as expected.

He also started submitting monthly financial reports to the Selectboard, a practice that had never been in place before. If financial issues came up, such as the need to respond to an unexpected snowstorm or late tax payments, said Leisenring, then “at least we [would] know about it.”

Leisenring also changed the grants administration process.

The planning department used to administer its own grants while helping other departments with theirs. Consequently, the finance department didn’t know what grants had been awarded, received, or spent, said Leisenring.

Now, departments submit a grant request to the finance department and to the Selectboard for authorization, giving the town a full financial context.

“We’ve been very successful in managing the budget,” said Leisenring, who also instituted building a cash reserve to keep the town solvent in true emergencies.

A cash reserve serves two purposes, he said. It buffers the town in case of a cash-flow crunch created by emergencies such as the Brooks House fire (an unanticipated catastrophe that cost the town $23,000), or by late payments, like delinquent tax bills.

Although the federal government often reimburses towns after an emergency, that relief can take months, said Leisenring. Meanwhile, employees still need their paychecks, roads still need maintenance, and the town still needs to keep the lights on.

Having a nest egg also looks good when the town borrows money, Leisenring said.

The town closed the books of fiscal year 2006 —Leisenring’s first — with a small surplus.

“It was a good start,” he said.

The town now has a $1.3 million surplus — a major improvement. But, he cautioned, with Brattleboro’s annual budget at more than $14 million, the current surplus would float the town, in an emergency, for just a little under two months.

Education

Leisenring said that educating the Selectboard, staff, Town Meeting representatives, and the public on the aspects of municipal finance was his greatest accomplishment.

Every Town Meeting provided him with the opportunity and challenge to educate the decision-makers, he noted.

One of those educational tasks, he added, was convincing town officials to develop a capital improvement plan looking 5 to 10 years into the future.

Brattleboro needs to be careful with the “we-can-go-a-couple-more-years” mentality, he said.

For example, Leisenring believes that the new wastewater treatment plant should have been built 10 years ago. He said that the best time to take on a capital project is during a down economy because interest rates are lower, construction costs are competitive, and public projects provide needed jobs.

Another accomplishment, Leisenring said, was helping the town get its debt under control. The town has paid off its past debts, except for the parking garage.

Paying off its debts gives the town breathing space, he said.

But while Leisenring has been showered with praise as he departs, he is quick to credit Sondag, and the heads of town departments, for the town’s successful financial turnaround.

Leisenring said he is “really impressed” with how departments help one another.

He also called Sondag a “great leader.”

“Barb does a great job at herding us cats,” he joked.

But Leisenring said he will always have a place in his heart for how the whole community welcomed him five years ago.

“The Finance Department has the least contact with the public. That level of appreciation from community members is really special to me,” he added.

Maryland to Brattleboro

Leisenring was born in Elmira, N.Y. He left his western New York home and opted for five years in the Navy over college.

The G.I. Bill brought Leisenring to Indiana. After university, he took a position at a local housing authority. He knew he liked accounting, but the housing authority taught him that he also enjoyed public service.

A chief financial officer stint at a private manufacturing firm reaffirmed his preference for the public sector.

He first worked as a controller in South Bend, Ind., followed by Finance Director positions in Michigan and Maryland.

“Politics stepped in,” he said, while he was working in his previous post in Frederick, Md. and the third mayor he served under didn’t renew his contract. Leisenring said that he received job offers from Brattleboro and Richmond, Va., on the same day. The Virginia job paid more, but he preferred Brattleboro.

“I think I made the right choice,” he said.

Leisenring has yet to formulate his retirement plans.

In the short term — Tuesday, specifically — he and his wife, Peggy Smith, will take a holiday at their 18-acre camp in Maine.

The couple lives in Brattleboro.

Leisenring and Smith have some time before discovering their next frontier. They still need to sell their house, and Smith won’t retire until next spring.

“This community is neat,” he said. “It’s been a great place to end my career.”

And he has some advice for his former colleagues at the Municipal Center.

“Keep on plugging on,” he said. “It’s not going to get any easier.”

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Julia Shumlin/The Commons

John Leisenring retired on Friday after five years as Brattleboro’s finance director.

Originally published in The Commons issue #110 (Wednesday, July 20, 2011).

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