In Search of Fiscal Correctness: A lonely voice for honest numbers
James B. Pyers
Director of Finance, Wooster, Ohio
Jim Pyers’ welcome to the world of public financial management was hardly a warm one. After just a year on the job as finance director for the city of Wooster, Ohio, he was called into the state auditor’s office and dressed down for having one of the worst sets of books of any city in the state. “ ‘Dressed down’ is putting it mildly,” laughs Pyers. “I was told what my duties were and I was informed that I was not performing those duties.”
Although getting scorched early in his incipient efforts to straighten out an inherited accounting mess wasn’t a lot of fun, it didn’t exactly faze the rookie financial manager. “It made me even more determined to run the office as professionally as I possibly could,” Pyers says.
Which is what the 51-year-old finance director has been doing ever since. In fact, the visit to the state auditor’s woodshed was pretty much the last time in his 25 years as Wooster’s finance director that Pyers would be dressed down for anything. In the intervening years, he has developed a national reputation as one of the most forward-thinking, activist and effective municipal money managers anywhere in the country—a position that hasn’t always made him popular.
Most notably, Pyers has pushed Wooster way out in front in adopting the Governmental Accounting Standards Board’s recent overhaul of financial accounting and reporting practices. GASB, which sets financial accounting and reporting rules for state and local governments, has developed guidelines aimed at making government financial reports both more reflective of actual overall fiscal health and easier for non-accountants to understand. In supporting the new standards, Pyers has embraced new accounting rules that call for much tighter monitoring and reporting of the cost of the upkeep—or neglect—of infrastructure, a position that has put Pyers at odds with most of his colleagues around the country. Indeed, Pyers’ position is so lonely that Wooster will be in compliance with the new GASB rules four years ahead of just about everybody else.
“He’s always doing things before we require them,” says Jay Fountain, director of research for GASB. And Pyers is always willing to lend a hand, says Fountain, adding that Pyers is a regular on GASB task forces looking into various areas of public accounting practice. A member of the governing board of the Government Finance Officers Association, Pyers has been an activist at the state level, as well. He was instrumental in starting a statewide association of municipal financial managers—a move that got him tossed out as a member of the state municipal league’s board. Local elected officials, it turned out, were not enthusiastic about such a show of independence on the part of their hired money managers.
If Pyers’ zeal on the national and state accounting front has occasionally made him less than popular, his drive toward greater fiscal responsibility and accountability is sometimes nettling on the home front, too. “I can’t say that he’s not difficult to deal with sometimes,” says Wooster Mayor James A. Howey, who was head of the city’s department of public works when he first got to know Pyers and his penchant for keeping everyone on the fiscal straight and narrow. “He’ll insist on encumbering money in your budget because of GASB rules, and that can be tough to take. But the fact is, he keeps us on a very good, very honest financial path.”
And when Pyers’ name is invoked by the current state auditor, it isn’t for messy books. “Whenever I’m at conferences of financial managers,” says Ohio Auditor Jim Petro, “I refer to Jim Pyers as the premier municipal financial director in the state.”
— Jonathan Walters
Photo by Bruce Zake