ST. ALBANS CITY — Sarah Macy really likes accounting.
“In case you didn’t pick it up, I’m like a governmental accounting supernerd,” Macy said. “My personal mission is to make everyone that I meet an accountant.”
Lucky for her, she gets to account all day.
After a seven-year hiatus working away from the City of St. Albans, Macy has returned as its newly-hired finance director.
“The universe is like: ‘Here is your path. You have gone out and gathered all of this knowledge and now you can come back and use it. Keep on keeping on all of this that was here when I started,” Macy said “It was a no brainer.”
The accounting rabbit-hole
Macy didn’t start out loving numbers. At the start of her college career at UVM, she initially thought she would be juggling a humanities-centered course load – full of political science, French and philosophy – but she ended up finding more sense in account books.
She’s been off to the races ever since, falling in love with accounting practices and the delineations between accounting standards.
Governmental accounting, however, was something special.
Admittedly, Macy didn’t get a whole lot of exposure to governmental record-keeping in her college days. Her accounting professors focused more on private business practices than municipal budgets, but she did end up falling into a job with the City of St. Albans as its assistant city accountant by 2008.
She loved the job, putting together payroll, utility building, accounts payable and helping with grants. She also got to watch the first steps of the city’s tax increment financing (TIF) program play out on the local level.
Today, she calls TIF her “first love.”
The governmental financing program allows the city to pay for projects by relying on future tax revenues from improvements made, but it’s also a complex financial tool that Macy could speak on for hours.
“I spent many a first date describing TIF with some placemats and salt and pepper shakers,” she laughed.
Luckily, she eventually found someone as enamored with spreadsheets as herself.
“On our first date, I was describing a spreadsheet I had just made, and he goes, ‘you know, I really would have created a macro for that,’” she said. “And I’m, like… found him.”
Macy left the City of St. Albans in 2016 for the Town of Milton, and then later, she became the joint finance director for both the Town and Village of Essex. In the role, she spent a lot of her time putting together secession planning and finding ways to help the two municipalities align shared services, but she eventually bowed out when the City of Essex Junction was formed.
That move brought her to a job with the Vermont League of Cities & Towns to do accounting work for municipalities that requested help.
She estimates that the role gave her some experience with roughly 85 governmental municipal budgets throughout the state, and no two towns keep the same books, she said. In most cases, someone at each town adopted accounting practices ad hoc, and then whatever was in place just became the norm.
She’s also seen many Vermont selectboards keep their primary focus as tightening tax revenues, although everyone’s success varies in that regard. Sometimes, such a tight focus on taxes eliminates the ability to think through other cost-saving solutions, she said.
The City of St. Albans, however, does not function that way, she said.
“I’ve been in a lot of municipalities throughout the state,” Macy said. “This municipality is the closest thing to being like a forward-thinking business model.”
It makes her job more interesting. The city has leveraged debt to fund much of its renaissance in the last decade, and she gets to watch the final stages of the TIF wrap up now as the city’s finance director.
“St. Albans prides itself on being a place. It’s placemaking. It’s a city of distinction. And it has done that with really forward thinking entrepreneurial attitudes from the mayor, the board, the manager and everyone is on board,” she said.
And she gets to practice accounting for her second love – municipal shared services. So far, St. Albans has been doing well, and she expects more towns will be catching on soon.
“I think shared services are the next frontier of local government,” she said.