FOCUSED COLLABORATION: Joanna L’Heureux, finance director for the city of Pawtucket, meets with Dylan Zelazo, a member Mayor Donald R. Grebien’s staff, who credits her with turning the city’s finances around, even in a city still dealing with the aftereffects of the Great Recession.
Even in a more robust economy than Rhode Island has enjoyed in the past decade, it takes plenty of effort and skill to turn a city budget deficit into a surplus, reduce a city’s tax rate, consolidate services and wrangle with four city employee unions.
Yet those are among the accomplishments that Joanna L’Heureux, director of finance and acting director of personnel, has achieved for the city of Pawtucket since her appointment to those positions two years ago.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, who nominated L’Heureux for recognition in Providence Business News’ 2014 CFO Awards program, said when she was hired as the city’s director of finance in January 2012 the city had a $12.6 million cash-flow deficit that required the town to purchase tax-anticipation notes in that amount to meet its obligations.
As a result of her budgeting ability and close attention to spending, no TANs were needed to cover the fiscal 2013 city budget of $119.3 million or for the 2014 budget. And the city’s tax rate even edged downward a small amount this year.
Early last year the city’s Fitch Ratings credit outlook went from negative to stable. Last fall, it went to positive, and Pawtucket is on the verge of its first credit-rating upgrade in many years. The city was able to pass a fiscal 2014 budget with no tax increases in any category for both residents and businesses.
“With her budgetary acumen and attention to detail,” Grebien said, “she set the tone as to what we needed to do to improve our finances. She eliminated an inherited cash-flow debt and streamlined accountability across city departments.”
Through it all, L’Heureux hasn’t been slowed down by also being the city’s acting director of personnel, which requires countless extended hours to work closely with division heads on personnel matters, while still keeping up with her finance-related duties.
“She’s done it through finding efficiencies, through consolidating services, working in partnership with union collective bargaining units,” Grebien said. “She’s done it through a change in philosophy. She’s a type-A personality. She knows how to put the best accounting practices in place. She’s aggressive. I describe her as professional, determined to get the best bottom line every time, and unafraid to deal with any issue.”
He said a good example of L’Heureux’s management style is that administrators will send her in first for any tough negotiations or issue. “Every time,” he said, “she takes the bull by the horns and spins that bull around in the other direction to get the result she wants.”
L’Heureux gave the mayor part of the credit for her success. “The mayor has challenged all of us to think outside the box,” she said. “I’ve tried to do that.”
A native of Waltham, Mass., L’Heureux started her work in finance as a summer intern at the town hall when she was a senior at Waltham High School. “I was in the finance department, and as an intern I got all the grunt work,” she recalled. “Back then, we did all general ledgers by hand. I remember saying out loud, ‘I’ll never do this again!’ ”
It’s lucky for the city of Pawtucket and her other post-college employers that the prediction was wrong. Even after she attended Bryant University to pursue a degree in business administration with a major in accounting, she returned to that same summer job every year. “I found that was my niche, that I enjoyed it,” she said.
After graduation, L’Heureux rose within the Pawtucket School Department from staff accountant to chief accountant. She became town auditor for Stoughton, Mass., then a senior accountant and business manager in the private sector before becoming Pawtucket’s director of finance in 2012.
She said the accomplishment she is proudest of as Pawtucket’s financial manager is the budget surplus the city has operated under for the past few years.
“We’ve gotten our bond rating up,” she said proudly. “We run with a surplus so we are able to have a cash reserve for future needs.”
She said she has accomplished this through cost-cutting, reorganizing and consolidating departments, and working collaboratively with the school department.
For example, when state pension reform was on the horizon, she looked at consolidating staff positions as employees retired from them. She worked collaboratively with the schools and town hall to merge the schools’ and the city’s information technology departments. Other possible areas of consolidation under review include human resources, facilities management and finance.
“I like to work with people,” she said. “I’m not afraid to pick up the phone and talk to people. I enjoy bringing different departments together. When a department is only in its own silo, it doesn’t know what’s going on in the outside world. One department can make one change that can be a positive one. All that’s necessary is to ask the question to come up with the answer.”
Grebien called the recent cooperation between the city and its school department “unprecedented.”
Grebien said in his application nominating L’Heureux for the award that her voluminous knowledge across city departments and overall tight rein on city finances “has kept Pawtucket within its last three tight and balanced municipal budgets, leading the city on a sustainable and stable fiscal path after years of declining municipal finances.”
He noted that this outstanding financial performance has been recognized in news reports naming Pawtucket as one of only two communities in the state that was able to decrease its tax levy in the current fiscal year, and by the largest percentage. Grebien said the amount Pawtucket levied in taxes went from a nearly even $100 million last year to $99.3 million, a decrease of 0.68 percent .