Three years ago, the City of Lindsay found itself in a precarious financial position. The city’s top management people began leaving in a quick string of retirements. The former auditing firm cut loose from the city without finishing its most recent audit and were succeeded by a hyper critical firm following strands of financial data to find evidence of financial mistakes, misuse and possible abuse.
With all of the top management gone, then interim City Manager Rich Wilkinson looked to a finance supervisor with more than 20 years experience to take on the complex and time consuming task of unraveling the financial ball of yarn. With no experience as a finance director, many in a similar situation might have tossed the ball of mess to the next person and cut their own ties with the city. But Tamara Laken accepted the challenge and played a key role in saving Lindsay when it was hanging by a thread from bankruptcy.
“I was raised to stay and stand with your friends especially during the bad times,” she said. “Lindsay is where I spend most of my time, where I volunteer and where my friends live. There was no way I was going to leave them.”
For her dedication to her job and the citizens, Laken was named Lindsay’s 2013 Employee of the Year.
“I feel like every employee that stuck through the tough times should get Employee of the Year,” Laken said. “Without my staff and everyone else in City Hall we would not have been able to right the ship.”
When Laken took over after former Finance Director Kenny Walker’s retirement, she said there was no succession plan for any of the City’s top management positions. She said several key duties of the finance director were only handled by Walker so she received some intense on the job training. She began updating all of the City’s out-of-date internal control policies and procedures, completely changed the budget from a two-year projection based budget to a 12-month actual budget and made all of the city’s financial documents more reader friendly.
“The City Council now knows everything that is going on at all times,” she said. “When they request information, I create a new chart to illustrate the facts.”
She said the learning curve has been difficult but she has also challenged herself to go above and beyond what is required. She started studying other city budgets, calling cities with similar financial crises to find out what could have been done earlier to avoid bankruptcy. She often stayed until 11 p.m. at night trying to find new ways to create transparency through documents. For the last two years, Laken has been providing information to a host of auditors from an alphabet soup of state agencies ranging from housing to roads.
“I have learned more in the last three years than the six years I spent getting my AA and bachelor’s degree in finance,” Laken said. “Each day, month and year I enjoy this job more and more.”
Laken started her career with the City’s Finance Department in July 1989 when she was hired as a temporary accounting clerk. A few months later she was hired full time. She said she appreciated her time under City Manager Bill Drennen who instilled in her the importance of remember who she worked for – the citizens.
“Drennen epitomized what it is to be a community servant and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to begin my career under his administration and guidance,” Laken said.
By 2005, Laken was promoted to a supervisor in the department handling payroll/cash reconciliation and deposits. During that time she worked for City Manager Scot Townsend who she referred to as a visionary but who often lacked the practical application of his grandeur plans.
“Scot was a genius and is responsible for many of the great things we see in Lindsay today,” Laken said. “I think in some cases we were in too much of a hurry to work on projects instead taking more time to complete them one at a time.”
Laken credits Townsend with redeveloping Lindsay into a city with more amenities for residents and attractions for tourists. She credits City Manager Rich Wilkinson with finding a way to finish the redevelopment projects started by Townsend, finding unique solutions to the City’s enormous debt load, such as negotiating new terms for loans coming due with large balloon payments.
“Rich brought the discipline from the Public Safety side to city finances,” Laken said of the city manager/police chief. “It has been an amazing change that has provided the kind of leadership we needed for the situation we were in.”
Since being named the permanent finance director in May 2011, Laken has also served as Risk Manager, member of the City Loan Committee, member of the City Safety Committee and assisted with human resources and benefits management. During her 24 years with the City, Laken has served under four mayors: Paul Lencioni, Val Saucedo, Ed Murray and Ramona Padilla. She continues to guide the city through refinancing, reducing and repaying its debt and make Lindsay’s finances more transparent for her boss – the citizens of Lindsay.
“I think that this is a city-wide award makes it even more special because it means the citizens of Lindsay know how hard I work for them,” she said. “I am truly honored and proud to receive this award.”