The four newest City Council members said they favor ditching the policy that directors must live in Decatur after some candidates for chief financial officer expressed reservations about moving to the city.
Mayor Tab Bowling and longtime Councilman Billy Jackson said the residency requirement should remain in place, while councilmen Kyle Pike, Carlton McMasters and Hunter Pepper and Council President Jacob Ladner said it hampers the effort to hire the best applicants.
The council selected four out of 26 applicants to interview as they seek to replace former CFO John Andrzejewski, who retired Jan. 22.
The residency requirement for directors was an issue with the previous council, which rejected an attempt by Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin and then-Councilman Chuck Ard to change the policy during the CFO search in 2017. They hired Andrzejewski in a second round of searches in September 2017. He moved from Northampton County, Virginia.
During Friday’s interviews, Kyle Demeester, the only internal candidate, wouldn’t guarantee he would move from Athens, where he and his wife recently bought a home.
Demeester, the city finance manager, said his willingness to move to Decatur would depend on how much the city offers in salary during contract negotiations if he’s offered the job.
The salary range for the job is $86,328 to $131,359.
Tricia Arnold, director of treasury product, marketing and sales for Alabama Farm Credit in Cullman, said she wouldn’t be willing move to Decatur for “three or four years” if hired.
She said she doesn’t want to “uproot” her two children, who are in high school and middle school, and she would like for them to graduate before she moves.
The other two candidates, Andrea Holmes, former federal Securities and Exchange Commission auditor from Triangle, Virginia, and Vincent Davidson, former chief accountant for the city of Birmingham, said they would move to Decatur if hired.
Holmes said she has family in Tuscaloosa and could live with them until she finds a home in Decatur.
Jackson said Demeester and Arnold should not have applied for the job because the job posting says moving to the city is required.
Ladner said the residency requirement makes sense for the police and fire chiefs, but not for the directors of other departments.
“I see the requirement as a complete lack of vision,” Ladner said. “Our responsibility is to build the best team to run the city.”
Pike and McMasters said they want the directors to live in Decatur, but they feel it’s more important to find quality employees.
Pepper said during Demeester’s interview that he “doesn’t think it’s fair to force someone to move into the city.”
The city has a long-standing policy that a director must move to the city within 12 months, but it hasn’t been enforced until recently.
Ladner said he hasn’t discussed a resolution changing that policy.
Bowling and Jackson, who is in his seventh term on the council, said it’s important that director-level city employees live in Decatur.
“A department head has an obligation to live within the city limits,” Jackson said. “It’s vitally important they live here because they’re the highest paid city employees. As residents, they will reinvest their money on food, gas and other living expenses in the city. They will become more vested in Decatur.”
Bowling said department heads need to be invested in the city so residents know them and they know the residents.
The mayor also pointed out that the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce has a committee studying residential growth. It was appointed because the city’s population growth has been stagnant since the late 1990s.
“They’ve worked hard to find ways to get more people to move here,” Bowling said.
Jackson said not requiring a city department head to live in Decatur would contradict everything the city has tried to accomplish in recent years. The city has had seven major new subdivision developments go through the city approval process in the last two years.
Bowling threatened to fire Information Systems Director Brad Phillips in 2019 for not moving to the city and was overruled by the City Council.
The council also made exceptions for Decatur Youth Services Director Bruce Jones and Street and Environmental Services Director Rickey Terry because they were retiring. Jones retired in January 2020, but Terry is still working for the city.
The Decatur Daily found through an open records request for city records in December 2018 that 66% of the city of Decatur’s employees lived outside the city limits.
New Fire Chief Tracy Thornton agreed after his recent promotion in September to move from Ardmore to Decatur, but Bowling said he hasn’t moved yet.
Morgan County Regional Landfill Director Wanda Tyler moved into the city from Jackson, Mississippi, when she was hired in 2019. Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake moved to Decatur when he became assistant director. New DYS Director Brandon Watkins already lived in the city when he was hired last year.
Ladner said he would discuss the next step in the hiring process for a new CFO with the City Council at its next meeting.
The following candidates were interviewed Friday:
• Demeester, city finance manager. The 32-year-old Canadian and former college golfer has worked for the city of Decatur for three years.
His position with the city is his first job as a supervisor. He credited Andrzejewski as his mentor and for giving him a chance to learn how to work as a CFO. As an auditor for Warren Averitt LLC, he audited Decatur’s finances for six years before taking the city job.
Demeester said he feels the city’s budget process operates backward. Instead of department heads informing city leaders what they want and need, he said the department heads should be told how much their department will be allocated before they create a budget.
“The budget process is a bear,” Demeester said. “There are too many meetings. It’s too cumbersome.”
• Davidson, former chief accountant for the city of Birmingham. The 48-year-old Hoover resident is also a minister, a father of four children and a self-described comic book geek.
He said he has been asked to resign twice in his career, including in April 2020 because of differences with his boss, the Birmingham CFO.
He has served as an interim CFO in Birmingham and he has been in multiple budget processes.
“My vision of the CFO is that, as the ranking financial officer, I would be responsible for getting the pertinent information to those who make decisions,” Davidson said. “And it’s important to get input from every department.”
Davidson said he believes in using analytics to examine and make predictions for past and future finances.
“I’m a number cruncher. I thoroughly enjoy data,” he said.
• Holmes, former federal Securities and Exchange Commission auditor from Triangle, Virginia. The Shreveport, Louisiana, native, 52, has worked in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which she left in 2016.
She was the interim financial controller from September 2019 until October 2020 at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. During this time, she put together her only budget, which was about $2 million annually.
She views the municipal CFO “as someone who manages the money, makes sure we don’t go over budget and provides accurate reports.”
Holmes said she would want to make sure the city’s tax revenues are spent wisely. She said it’s important that the city maintain its streets and provide important services.
“I think about myself and how I look at some things as, ‘This is not worth the money,’” Holmes said.
• Arnold, director of treasury product, marketing and sales for Alabama Farm Credit in Cullman. A native of Monroeville, Arnold worked at the Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Decatur for 16 years as treasurer, secretary and CFO. She also worked two years for the Cullman City Board of Education.
Arnold said she left the cooperative to raise children but she was excited to find out about the opening in Decatur.
She said a big part of being a CFO is hiring good people. She described herself as “very authentic and very candid with people. I always enjoy open dialogue whenever there’s an issue.”
She said accounting “is my bread and butter.” She has managed up to 20 people. She led the processes for building operation and capital budgets at the cooperative. She also worked with the cooperative’s stores.