WESTERLY — As she monitors the municipal budget, keeps an eye on the town’s bond rating, and supports the town manager, Dyann Baker, who started her job as finance director in May, has one other task she says is most important.
“My major goal this year is to build trust and confidence in this office so that everybody feels that they’re getting the information they need, whether it’s someone who wants to spend money here or whether it’s a town councilor who wants to understand the future,” Baker said.
The Finance Department’s reputation was battered in recent years. In January a representative of the town’s auditing firm said the “relative disarray” of the department’s records hindered and delayed his firm’s ability to complete its work. Six months earlier a consultant hired to study the department found several deficiencies, including frequent errors and a lack of training for department employees.
Baker said that Barbara Perino, who served as interim finance director for about 10 months, addressed many of the deficiencies and established new foundational standards and practices to prevent the problems from recurring. Perino continues to work for the School Department. Baker said, “Now it’s up to me keep that going and then go to the next level.”
Baker worked for 11 years at Mitchell College in New London, the last 10 years as senior vice president of finance and administration. She was responsible for maintaining and improving key financial indicators for the college, and for managing contracts for facilities, dining services and institutional technology. She also refinanced long-term debt and was responsible for preparing annual and quarterly financial statements. Additionally, she established grant accounting policies and procedures and developed the college-wide annual budget.
While she was looking for a new position Baker considered other institutions of higher education as well as municipal work. She interviewed for positions in three other towns in the region but saw Westerly as the most attractive.
“In Westerly I met with all of the department directors. That was different from the other towns. I found there was a lot of good collaboration here that made me feel like this is something I can really do. I can be part of the solutions and be able to move forward in the same way,” Baker said.
Baker is responsible for the Finance Department’s five employees, many of whom were hired within the past year. Her job, she said, is to “keep them informed and well involved.”
“They built a really good team. It’s a matter of me learning how to leverage that team to its best capacity,” she said.
The Gales Ferry resident comes to Town Hall at a time the town is addressing deficiencies in roads and related infrastructure and as an elementary school redesign project is coming into focus. That work is likely to require borrowing. Town officials are also looking for ways to improve recreation facilities, an endeavor that could also entail significant expenditures.
Earlier this week Baker and Town Manager J. Mark Rooney met with the town’s financial adviser to discuss the town’s bond rating, which was downgraded slightly by Moody’s Investors Service in 2016. The challenge, Baker said, is to “ensure we are getting the best rating and at the same time doing what we need to do.” Bond ratings are indicators of financial position and influence interest rates for municipal bonds. Despite the downgrade, the town’s rating remained within the rating agency’s “high quality” zone.