Civic Leaders // S1E15 // Heather Johnston, President of the @GFOA and City Manager of @BurnsvilleMN
Here we speak with the dynamic, forward-thinking Heather Johnston, who is the incoming President of the Government Finance Officers Association, which has 18,000 members in the US and Canada. Before becoming the City Manager of Burnsville, Minnesota she served as the Chief Finance Officer. Experience, insight and broad perspective make this episode one not to miss.
00:31 – A New Office: Congrats on becoming GFOA President—what do you do exactly?
01:32 – Silver Tsunami: What looming challenges do you foresee for Finance Officers?
02:27 – GFOA and YOU: Your open data portal and it’s incredibly implementation story.
04:04 – Buying Power: How to get into a strong financial position.
05:57 – Tech Standout: How has Burnsville been a leader in tech?
07:43 – The Road Ahead: With a full plate, what are you looking forward to most?
A NEW OFFICE
Thanks for joining us Heather, and congratulations on your recent entry into office. That leads me to our first question—what exactly does the President of the Government Finance Officer’s Association do?
Thank you, I’m very excited about having that opportunity, it’s going to be a big challenge for me and I’m really looking forward to it. The GFOA President is the convener of the executive board of the GFOA and that’s the governing board for the national and international organization of the United States and Canada. We have one employee, Jeff Esser, who is the Executive Director of the GFOA, and so we make sure that we’re helping set priorities—we do the strategic planning for the organization as a board. The President also does some outreach to the state organizations in the United States and the provincial organizations in Canada to try and help spread the word about the different types of services that the GFOA provides and really what the latest and greatest things that GFOA is working on.
As you settle into your role with the GFOA, what hurdles and pressing issues do you expect Finance Officers and their agencies to come up against in the near future?
There’s a couple that I’d mention. I think the one that’s most looming is—we’ve talked a lot about this sort of silver tsunami. We have a lot of people who are retiring and with those retirements there is a loss of knowledge. Along with that we’ve got a new generation that we have to make sure that we are helping them understand the exciting opportunities that are available [in] government, especially the local government level. I think it’s our challenge to be able to recruit and retain that new generation, help them understand why what we do is so exciting and why they have so many different opportunities to be creative, to be innovative and to really make an impact on their community.
In addition to that, we’ve really been working on a financial resiliency effort to really help push finance departments throughout the county to figure out how do you really weave in financial resiliency into all of the operations. Looking at the principles, what does your organization or city or county hold near and dear and how do you make sure that all of your decisions are following those principles and following those values as you move forward and want to make sustainable decisions in to the future.
GFOA AND YOU
For members of the GFOA and those considering joining–what are some underutilized, yet valuable services that the GFOA offers to its members?
One of the things that we spend a lot of time on—and as you know we have over 18,000 members in the United States and Canada. We have different committees that work on accounting, budgeting, pensions, debt management, and capital and financial planning and what we do is we prepare best practices. We have best practices documents that if I were able to do anything, it would be to get everybody to make sure that they’re reviewing those best practices documents and trying to make sure they’re bringing those best practices into their municipality so that they can figure out how to make their financial operations better. A lot of people use those best practices already but the more the merrier, if you will! I think they [have] great information and they’re written in a way that is easy to understand if you’re not an expert. A lot of smaller jurisdictions for example, you may not have a Pensions Consultant or a Debt Consultant and—how do you even know where to start? Those best practices that the GFOA provides…that helps you get a great starting point and you may not be able to do every little thing in the first year in [utilizing] those best practices, but if you just find a place to start, you’ll be on the path toward financial resiliency.
Burnsville is currently in a strong financial position. How did you accomplish that, and how can other agencies do the same?
We are really proud of our financial position; we have triple-A ratings from two of the four major rating agencies. It has been a lot of hard work over a number of years. And really again, this is the leadership of the city council. They have made that a priority; we’ve done five-year financial planning—and that’s just what we talk about in the budget process. We’ve also moved to some of our other funds to make sure that we’re looking five, ten, fifteen, twenty years out for our capital needs. That really helps us understand what the challenges are that are coming up in the future so that we can start o plan for it.
One example, I think some folks have heard about is the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s this looming little bug that’s going to come and kill all of our trees. It’s slowly been moving from the east coast over to the Midwest. What’s happened for us is—when that first started showing up in the news we started putting away just a little bit of money here, a little bit of money there. When the bug showed up in neighboring community, we in Burnsville already had treatment underway for those types of trees and had developed policies for how we were going to address that when it hit our borders. That means that we didn’t have to say “Oh my, we have to find ten million dollars to cut down the Ash trees.” We were very carefully, considering what all the options and choices were. If you plan ahead of time you have a lot more options, if you don’t plan—you only have one option most of the time. That’s really the important thing for us and how financial planning has helped us along the way.
Burnsville is regarded as a technology leader in the Twin Cities area, how did that come to be, and what accomplishments have you garnered through your hard work?
We have a tremendous IT staff and our Tom Venables has been great at coming up with ideas. If you go back to even to 2005, the City of Burnsville decided to take and start putting in fiber in its community. The City Council has also always challenged us to make sure that we are pushing the envelope and making sure that we’re trying new things. The great thing about that is that it’s OK to fail. You have to be willing, especially in technology to know that it might not work out just perfectly. Another example of that is the body-cams. Our Police were one of the first adopters in the county of body-cams back in 2010. We started out with a group of folks who were really passionate about it and said let’s try this new technology. We learned an awful in the first couple years about what to do, what not to do, how to finesse your policies to make sure that you’re thinking of all the different things that you can.
But really what we found through that process and through using technology, that we’re able to provide services in a more effective way and more efficient way—we recognize that you can’t go back. Technology is everywhere. You have people out in the community, they expect you be using [current] technology. They expect for them to be able to get online, get answers to their questions, to say that if I have an issue, I want to make sure that I can report it online, I want to get my permit app online. You can’t put our head in the sand; everybody expects technology.
THE ROAD AHEAD
With a full plate in front of you, what is the next opportunity, challenge or project that you’re ready to take on?
Other than the GFOA Presidency—I’m really excited about that. Here at Burnsville, we have so many challenges that I am excited to work on. We’re currently working on—we’re almost a fully developed city, about ninety-eight percent developed. So we’re working on a lot really exciting redevelopment opportunities; I’m excited about those challenges that those provide. One of the innovative things that we did before that I forgot to mention was the water partnership. We have a really creative and innovative water partnership that we’ve worked on with a neighboring city and a local business and we are trying to work in that same area to make sure that we get some of that land redeveloped as well.