Sunday, June 12, 2016

Interview with retired MD of Pincher Creek Director of Finance and Administration Matt Bonertz

Christian Davis - Matt Bonertz retired this month at the age of 63 from his position as the MD of Pincher Creek No.9's Director of Finance and Administration after 35 years of working for the MD. His last day on the job was Friday, June 3.

I conducted the interview that forms the basis for this story earlier that week.

Bonertz was born and raised in Pincher Creek. He left Pincher Creek to work as a systems analyst and computer programmer in Calgary for seven years in the early 1970s before coming back to Pincher Creek in 1981 with his wife Louise, who was also born and raised in Pincher Creek. "That's what I was originally hired for here (computer programming)." According to Bonertz, the MD had at that time purchased a new accounting program which was having a number of issues, and the MD created a position to have someone on hand who could make the system run better. "We jumped at the opportunity. It was going to be about a two year stint when we left, and here we still are."

"Basically, computer programming is accounting. At least the application here was to computerize their accounting functions. So if you are going to computerize that you better have a pretty thorough understanding of what accounting is, and how it works, and why it works and all that. Assembly language, we hey called it back then. What I mostly got into in programming was called COBOL. That was a language developed for business computing. That is what I spent most of my programming career doing." Software developed by Bonertz was marketed in a few other municipalities. Feeling a bit burnt out on programming, he chose to follow a more administrative career. "It worked out pretty well for both the MD and myself, I think."

Reporting to council was an important ongoing part of Bonertz' position with the MD. During my own half decade of covering council meetings the reporting process has demonstrably evolved, often at the request of council. I asked Bonertz for his views on that, and about the learning curve some new councillors face when presented with issues relating to the MD's finances. "Certainly over the years there has been a steady improvement over what information gets reported to council, and how it gets reported to council." He explained that in the past councillors often did not see information from him until the actual council meeting, meaning there was little time for councillors to prepare questions, or for him to have the right information at hand to answer them properly. "I think I have worked for 12 councils. That first six months is such a learning curve for them, and it puts extra work on our (administration's) shoulders too, because you need to go into that much more background on the stuff you do present to them."

The MD's new Director of Finance Janene Felker has been working for the MD and with Bonertz for the last year and a half. "My understanding is that the intention is she will take over my role and carry on from there. She's been working out very well. They will be just as well looked after I leave. That's a good feeling, too."

I asked Bonertz for his view of the current state of the MD's finances. "Strong and positive, as they pretty much always have been. Working in that position for such a long period you are pretty much able to put some programs in place and then actually see them through to where they're actually accomplishing what the initial intention was."

"I think the MD has done very well. Councils have been open to different programs and strategies over the years and for the most part it's worked out very positive for the MD. We have been able to keep our taxes at a consistent level."

The biggest ongoing challenge for the accounting department over the years? "You hardly have two days that are the same when you're working with the public all the time. Concerns come in and very seldom you'd get two similar concerns in a row."

The biggest challenge facing the MD over the years of Bonertz' employment there? "A big one that comes to mind is the flood in '95. It impacted the municipality from one end to the other, and from side to side. It took quite a few years to recover from, actually." After that event the MD got disaster relief funding from the Provincial and federal governments. "They're very reasonable. In the end it didn't actually cost the municipality any money, it cost a lot of time. But we got some compensation back for that time as well."

"Some of the stuff is still done basically the same way it was done 30 years ago. there has been revisions of the legislation over the years, but a lot of it, the structure, is still the same because it's sound."

I asked Bonertz why the MD tends to lean on their overdraft at the bank, particularly earlier in the year before taxes have been collected, instead of cashing in on their investments. "Most of it boils down to the dollars and cents of it. If you can borrow money for about the same as investments are making you, there isn't much reason to cash in your investments so that you don't have to borrow. You are better off leaving your investments in place, and paying those borrowing costs on a short term basis. It just seems to be a matter of principle. Once that money is taken out of investments, it's hard to get it back. The low interest rates, especially the last five or six years have been so low there just hasn't been any incentive to cash in our investments. In the end we still have our investments."

Explaining further Bonertz said, "It usually gets to be about the size (amount of capital) you are needing. If you are starting to operate for half the year on overdraft when you have the actual money sitting in the bank, you maybe need to bite the bullet and cash some of that in."

Many of the MD's projects use money from reserve accounts. "That is money that has been set aside in the past, basically for some future project. That money gets invested at that time. Because you have got the funds to pay for it you put that money investments and call it reserves for when you need it. Sometime in the future when you use that reserve to fund a capital project, if you have enough cash sitting in the bank you don't bother cashing in that investment you just use the cash you got sitting in the bank." 

"The reserves get reduced, but the actual cash that's backing up those reserves can stay in place. We did that for a number of years where we would fund our projects with operating cash that we had taken from the ratepayers, rather than cashing in the investments that were there offsetting them and we just got to the point where we didn't have enough operating cash to carry us through a whole year. And because at the time the interest rates worked in our favor, it was better to have the municipality go into an overdraft position, cash in those investments that were making a percent or two more than what the overdraft was costing us."

I asked Bonertz to comment specifically on the new MD administration building, which opened in 2014 after several years of debate and planning. "This is one of the most significant (projects) from my standpoint because I was able to see us outgrow the original building and we worked with council and the planning and developing of this building and actually see it through the construction phase."

I asked Bonertz for his thoughts on his years of experiences at the MD.

"I personally over all of the years have enjoyed working with the municipal public. Once in a while you will get someone who just isn't reasonable, but for the most part people are just looking for answers and need an explanation about whatever their issue is, and typically are satisfied with the answer. They don't always like it, but if that's the way it is, that's the way it is." 

"Council, that's a dedicated bunch. That's not a job for everybody. It's not just a part time commitment anymore. There is just so much going on that they need to stay abreast of. They don't get a lot days to themselves. They obviously are finding lots of rewards in it, because we have had quite a few councillors who come back term after term after term." 

As reported here previously, during the May 24 meeting of MD council Reeve Brian Hammond spoke as a special delegation, thanking Bonertz for his service to the MD. “I understand, as I am sure most other people do, that this is a special day for you in some ways, because this is the last council meeting that you will attend in an official capacity as a senior member of our financial staff. On behalf of our council I would like to offer congratulations for a long and successful with the MD, Matt, first as a Technology and Systems Analyst, a Municipal Clerk, and then over the last couple of years as our Director of Finance and Administration.”

“You’ve provided advice, guidance, and support to a number of administrators, and I think if my math is right, some nine different councils over that nearly thirty year time frame. Thank you for your long commitment and dedication to your responsibilities here at the MD.”

“On behalf of council, Matt, I wish you good health, good luck, and great success in your retirement.”

Matt's wife Louise is also retired. He said he sees himself spending a lot of time out at the Cowley Boat Club, where they have a lot. "We are tending to spend a lot more time out there." Matt said they see themselves also taking the occasional cruise as part of their retirement. "We really like the feeling you get on those ships, because you are just treated like royalty. It doesn't matter what your background is or where you come from." Matt and Louise will be celebrating their 41st anniversary in August of this year.

+headline typo corrrected

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