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What you need to know for 08/18/2017

City losing finance chief to Proctors

City losing finance chief to Proctors

Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, who was criticized by some members of the City Council for padding

The city’s chief finance official is leaving her position.

Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, who was criticized by some members of the City Council for padding the 2013 proposed budget, said she will resign Jan. 24 to become the chief finance officer for Proctors.

Her new salary has not been finalized, but she will be paid more than $100,000 to oversee a budget of about $20 million, Proctors CEO Philip Morris said. She is paid $96,455 at City Hall to manage a budget of $78 million.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said this may create an opportunity to consolidate finance operations with the county. It would require the city to standardize some operations, but the county uses the same software as the city for many items.

“I want to try to work together with the county on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we do that are on the same system. We may look to standardize some things, for greater efficiency.”

The city was already planning to consolidate purchasing with the county next year.

Council members stressed that they did not want Alam to leave, despite their budgetary decisions to cut what they considered unnecessarily large expenditures. Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said Alam shouldn’t consider the council’s decisions a personal criticism.

“I don’t know that it was necessarily a criticism of her,” Perazzo said. “It was to see if we could run a little closer and leaner.”

Perazzo said the city will move on, however.

“A fresh set of eyes — in both places — is a good thing. That is in no way a criticism of her,” she said. “Ismat has always been extremely responsive and forthright with me.”

Councilman Carl Erikson, the finance committee chairman, also praised Alam for responding to his questions and explaining finances at length. He said he suspected she overbudgeted certain items rather than creating a contingency fund because the council might have been more likely to cut that fund.

“There’s always a need for contingency, in every budget,” he said. “If that’s where she wanted to put it, fine. It just needs to be understood that’s where it is.”

He said he preferred a contingency fund, but added that he didn’t think her way was wrong.

For Alam, the decision to leave had nothing to do with the contentious budget season, she said. Alam’s husband has had serious health problems in recent years, and it has been difficult for her to care for him while also working long hours.

In the months leading up to each budget, she often worked into the night and on weekends at City Hall. She immediately took time off after the 2013 budget was passed to be with her husband in the hospital but spent her time planning ways to put Schenectady’s finances on a more solid footing, she said.

A job at Proctors promises her a more regular schedule, which could give her the time she needs for caregiving.

“It’s a very difficult decision for me to make,” Alam said, “but I will have a little bit more normal hours.”

She said that she will spend the next two months working to build up the city’s savings account, which could benefit from a surplus if the city ends the year with extra money.

“I will make sure the fund balance is where it needs to be,” she said.

Morris told McCarthy that Alam will be allowed to give Schenectady some help if needed after she starts her new job.

“Philip has agreed to make her available as needed,” McCarthy said, adding that he didn’t ask Alam to leave.

“I’m disappointed to lose her,” he said.

He stressed that he will fill her position — or arrange to work with the county — by the time she leaves.

“We’ll staff it,” he said.

The state Comptroller’s Office has advised the city to closely watch its expenses in 2013 because the city is facing a widening deficit. Alam said she was glad that the Comptroller’s Office also noted in that report the good work the city had done.

“I feel good to be leaving as the city has been recognized for tackling many financial issues largely outside of its control,” she said in a news release. “Proctors is the jewel of Schenectady and I look forward to being part of the team that brings Proctors to a new level of achievement.”

She added that she was a little frustrated when the City Council cut her budget deeply. She said she’s still afraid that will put the city in a precarious state next year, even though the council decided to put the funds cut from the budget into a savings account so they could pull from it if they needed more money.

Alam said she wouldn’t have made those cuts.

“When you make a decision, you have to look at all of the consequences,” she said. “We will do our best to make that budget successful, and that is why I did not leave earlier.”

Despite the frustrating budget season, there’s no hard feelings, she said.

“This place has become my family. I don’t have any family in this state. The good news is I’ll be just across the street,” she said.

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