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By Chris Frost
Tri County Sentry
Oxnard-- Chief Financial Officer Kevin Riper prepares for his next challenge as the new Director of Financial Management in Long Beach, Tuesday, September 7. He is grateful to the city and staff in Oxnard that wanted to make the government a source of pride for its residents.
During his interview process, Riper said Oxnard's financial challenges were well known, but City Manager Alex Nguyen is considered one of the strongest city managers in Southern California, and Oxnard is a beautiful place to live.
"Those three things together attracted me to Oxnard," he said. "In local government, everything is public record, everything is recorded, the meetings and agendas are published, and the audits are published, and the analytical studies are available at the city's website. I read most of it and watched much of it before I got here, so there were no major surprises."
Riper found the finance staff eager and responsive to resolving the city's audit findings upon his arrival.
"There were a lot of them, so it was a long road ahead of us," he said. "I didn't sense any reluctance or the feeling that people were beaten down at all."
He said the city staff, council, Nguyen, and the city treasurer welcomed him with open arms and were eager to get going.
"The issues that were on our plate in early 2019 were the upcoming budget for the fiscal year 2019-2020, and the audit findings that had already been made and some that were getting ready to be made for the fiscal year 2018-2019," he said. "We plunged into all of that at the same time."
Setting the city on a successful course forward didn't require huge staff changes, he said, as the job market for finance professionals is so strong, many staff were lured out of Oxnard to other positions. Instead, he cultivated his staff and added to their training.
Riper said challenge one was beginning the installation of the new enterprise and resource planning system.
"That was a strong recommendation from Eadie & Payne, the independent financial auditors, and it covered a number of recommendations," he said. "That's by far the biggest challenge, and we're well underway with that, but there is a long distance to go still. It was the biggest audit recommendation."
Riper called the finance staff "incredibly supportive and dedicated" to moving the city forward.
"For year-end 2018-2019, in the late summer and early fall, the general accounting division worked eight straight weekends of mandatory overtime to close the books and get ready for the audit," he said. "That's the measure of dedication the finance department staff had, and that has continued over the last several years: much less mandatory overtime but equal dedication to the task at hand. That's true whether it is budget, purchasing, supporting the operating departments, or the administration division."
Riper said Nguyen was incredibly supportive and amazingly resourceful when it came to helping the finance department succeed.
"He recommended, and the city council approved, two new positions in the fiscal year 2019-2020 budget for the finance department that were absolutely critical in improving operations and resolving many of the audit findings," he said. "He (Nguyen) sought out our opinion and analysis at every turn. He debated us in a way to think more deeply about financial issues that were facing the city. It was a wonderful experience working with him. He is one of the best city managers in the entire state and country."
He called the council a supportive group.
"In setting the tone at the top, that financial reform, better financial reporting, and prompt accounting work were all important," he said. "The tone for the city's financial operation starts at the top, City Manager Alex Nguyen, the mayor, and the city council, and they were consistent, firm, and clear in their expectations of what we needed to deliver, and they gave us the resources to do that. Then, when we had success, they were extremely gracious in acknowledging the whole team."
Riper said his decision to move to Long Beach was a tough one to make.
"Long Beach is a remarkably attractive city and opportunity," he said. "It is a bigger city with different challenges, a significantly larger organization, and staff," he said. "We made a lot of progress in Oxnard, and I am going to miss everybody here. It was great working for Alex and my colleagues on the senior leadership team and department staff. The team has made a lot of progress, and Oxnard will continue to improve, so it's okay for me to move on to a different and larger challenge."
He said Oxnard's best attribute is an engaged community that wants and expects higher service levels.
"The elected officials support that," he said.
Riper said the city has two assistant financial directors, Betsy George and Mark Sewell, who will fill in while Nguyen selects a new chief financial officer.
Moving forward, he said the interim directors should follow a simple formula for success.
"Rely on the staff, ask the city manager for advice and counsel, explain everything to the city council and committees in clear, understandable terms, and continue to trust the larger organization to do what it needs to do with the help of the finance department," he said. "I am very optimistic about Oxnard's future. It's all set up for long-term improvement and continued success."