The Sag Harbor Express sits down with the new Southampton Town Comptroller, Tamara Wright, to discuss her background in finance, the state of the town’s finances and why she loves accounting.
What is your background in finance?
I have a masters degree in accounting, or a masters of accountancy. My first job was working for a liberal arts college, Guilford in North Carolina, as an assistant comptroller. After that I worked for [the professional services firm] Price Waterhouse, before their merger with Coopers and Lybrand, for six years.
I detect a slight Southern accent. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. I did my masters at Virginia Tech and then I moved to New York City to work for Price Waterhouse.
What did you do at Price Waterhouse?
I was in the management consulting division. At that time there weren’t industry specialties. I worked in a number of different industries, but my area of expertise was in financial management and strategic planning. Now things are organized in such a way where you might be an expert in the financial sector or the manufacturing sector, or you might be an expert in government.
One of my first projects was for the New York City Fire Department. There had been a lawsuit against the city because the cost of the fee for fire inspections was exceeding the cost of completing the inspection itself. I developed a cost allocation model, [which meant] I had to figure out what it really cost [to do the inspection.] I had to watch how they inspected a how and how long it took them to do it.
I did a similar kind of job when they were building the World Financial Center. The city of New York and Olympia & York were my clients. They had a joint agreement with the Port Authority. They had four buildings, but when they were selling their first building they didn’t know how much it had cost them to build it. So I had to put on a hard hat and go out and see how they had built the building . . . see how much steel they had used.
Was that one of your favorite aspects of the job, to go out and see how these financial projects existed in the real world?
I think I have always loved learning new things and I have always been drawn to improving things, so management consulting was a really good place for me. I was able to learn a lot and develop different skills in financial planning, budgeting systems and improving financial functions. I learned how to make them more efficient and effective.
What else did you at Price Waterhouse?
I specialized in transfer pricing, financial planning, financial reorganization and financial records reconstruction, [among other things.] I did this across a number of sectors. Air Canada was one of my clients.
Mostly my work was involved in financial and strategic issues. The job really allowed me to develop my financial management skills.
I also did a little “tour of duty” developing continuing education classes in management consulting at the national office. I wrote a couple of courses and taught new managers. I taught them how to manage profitability. That experience gave me a whole other dimension into how adults learned. It really helped me as a manager to know how to educate adults and understand how they learn.
Where did your career take you after Price Waterhouse?
At Price I felt like I was a jack of all trades, but a master of none so I decided to work inside a company. I became interested in the financial sector and I ended up in the world of Wall Street. I left Price Waterhouse to work for Prudential Financial first as a risk analyst, then moved on to a variety of other roles, including business unit controller and budget officer, director of strategic and financial planning, and chief operating officer for the international business.
How long did you work for Prudential?
For 16 years. I did a lot of different things for them, but I thought I would only be there for a few years, then return to consulting. After that, I started my own consulting firm on the East End in 2006. Most of my consulting work was with not-for-profits and some start up ventures. I didn’t want to travel too far from home.
How did you become involved with Southampton Town?
Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst knew me because our children went to school together. She knew that I had a financial background. In the spring of 2008 she asked if I would submit my resume [as an outside financial consultant] to the town since they were going through a financial transition after the resignation of Charlene Kagel and appointment of the new comptroller, Steven Brautigam. My resume made its way to Human Resources and then I received a call from [former deputy supervisor] Richard Blowes and interviewed with the Town Board.
What were your main responsibilities when you started consulting for the town in July 2008?
Mostly, I was involved in two things: looking at how to redeploy the town’s financial system so that it would provide better financial controls and better reporting; and then the other part was helping to re-establish and organize the comptrollers office.
When Charlene left, two senior people — the deputy comptroller and the senior auditor — left with her. Another person retired after working here for a very long time. The office manager transferred to the water district. The payroll officer was transferred to the parks department. By the time I got here in July, there were only two people who had been in the department at the beginning of 2008. The office was pretty decimated and Steve Brautigam was struggling because he didn’t have the staff. The first thing I focused on was recruiting individuals, working with the human resources department and Steven to rebuild the comptroller’s office.
You were recently named town comptroller. Why did you accept the position?
I think my appointment was the least disruptive to the town when it found itself in need of a new comptroller. There had been so much disruption here, and since I had been part of recruiting and training the new staff, it was a bit easier for me to step in. This is an appointed position [that runs concurrent with the supervisor’s term] and my appointment will end in December. I think it wasn’t going to be easy for the town to find someone who would want to work for only six months as the comptroller.
I was already here and working with the town. I understood what was happening at the town, so I made the full time commitment.
Originally, my work was only supposed to be a 90-day project. My plan had been to move back down to Virginia. I had agreed to do a mid-July to mid-October project; but, while I was in the midst of it, the project took on a life of its own.
You were part of the team of town financial officials who discovered significant problems in the funding of the town’s capital projects and the inaccurate tracking of these projects from 2003 through 2007. How did you make this discovery?
Well, it wasn’t like we had a sudden epiphany. It slowly revealed itself over time. In the beginning, as we were redeploying the town’s financial systems. We wanted to have the cash for the projects and wanted to allocate the necessary funding. There were a combination of projects. Some were almost complete and some were just about to be completed. We had to decide if we wanted to carry these projects forward. Those kind of questions lead us to not really being able to reconcile the funding.
We realized that the cash in the bank and the amount left to spend [for each project] wasn’t equal. We did know that there were bonds that hadn’t fully been issued, but we knew something else must be at play.
Where does the town’s corrective action plan stand?
I think it is fair to say that we are still working on it. It is still in progress and we don’t fully know project by project where we stand. We are just beginning to understand the over- and the under-funding. We had to go back all the way to 2002 and look at how much cash was in the bank, how the money was borrowed for each project and we had to develop a database [with all of this information].
Richard Blowes has been heading the effort to see what was actually happening with these projects. He is looking at what money was going out and what money was coming in.
[Current deputy supervisor] Bill Jones is going through each town board authorization because the resolutions tell you how much spending was approved for each project, and how that project was supposed to be funded.
This week our forensic auditing company will begin a project to review all of the data. They will help validate what we have collected to make sure the information is accurate and complete. We need this independent audit to make sure that we have identified everything. It should be complete in a month and then we will have full understanding of how each project stands. Then, the draft corrective action plan will be updated and completed.
What are some measures the town is taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Certain new controls have been implemented, but improving the controls was a decision the town made before [discovering the errors in the capital fund.] It was through the process of improving [the town's finances] that we discovered the problem. I have to give the town credit, because they understood that they needed to improve their accounting for the capital projects almost a year ago. There was a recognition that there needed to be better accounting.
Now, each capital project has a cash account and a fund balance. It has an actual balance sheet. We are recording the funds received for each project, as well as for the spending. [Before, the funding for each project was coming from one fund, or “pool of money,” and the funding wasn't separated for each project.]
On a different note, what is it about finances that interests you? What do you love about finances?
I think when the financial function is performing effectively it provides information for good decision making. Accurate information is the corner stone of efficient and effectively running any kind of business, whether it be a municipality, private cooperation or a not-for-profit. You have to make good decisions. When a company fails the customers get hurt, and likewise when a municipality fails the taxpayers get hurt.
In my career I have enjoyed developing information that can be relied upon and helps management make good decisions.