By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Municipal finance is much more than balance sheets for Michel Sorrell, who brings more than two decades of experience to her new position in Liberty Hill.
Sorrell was hired in January as the new finance director for Liberty Hill, and has hit the ground running as she began preparing for the City’s Strategic Planning Session this week.
Being involved in all facets of finance and budget is where she wants to be after getting a taste of the budget side in previous positions.
“I’m very fortunate to be here and I think I have a lot to offer this growing city,” she said, adding that the chance to work on the whole financial picture here was very appealing. “Typically in the private sector you’re just an accountant, accounting and budgeting are separate. It has given me a whole different perspective that helps whoever I am working for because I understand both of those pieces.”
Working as an accountant, auditor, controller and finance director in her career, Sorrell has gained a well-rounded understanding of the business, both in the private and public sectors. She has owned her own business and worked for private companies, but has spent most of the last 15-plus years working for the state or municipal government.
A licensed certified public accountant and certified public manager, Sorrell got her first taste of being a finance director in Portland. She is a native of Granger, and returned home to be close to her family. Working in Liberty Hill has been a very welcoming experience.
“The people are awesome,” she said. “The people are great. It is nice to want to come to work and just know these folks are professional and they are giving their all to the city.”
The staff has a similar initial impression of Sorrell.
“We’re happy to be moving into a new phase of our city,” said City Administrator Greg Boatright as he introduced Sorrell to the City Council earlier this month. “We’ve been without a finance director since mid-April (2017). It is an asset we’ve been without and we’re really glad we now have a full staff to lean on and get answers and responses from. We’re very excited about the experience she brings and we’re looking forward to a good tenure.”
Working with budgets as well as the straight accounting side of a city’s operation opens a new perspective on what’s going on, and helps Sorrell become part of the answer to challenges the City faces when it comes to money and spending.
“I really like the budgeting part of it, which is so strange because when I started I was very black and white as an accountant,” she said. “(In budgeting) I get a chance to collaborate with departments and other entities and get their perspective on what they need or what they think is going to transpire with revenue.”
She said it also keeps you more focused on all aspects of the financial side of things.
“You are more in tune to watching what’s going on because you’ve worked the numbers, you did the forecasting,” Sorrell said of helping prepare a budget. “It is a guiding tool for the entire year. If it is done right it is a tool, but sometimes it can be just a document that sits on a desk, but that’s not how I feel about it.”
Philosophically, as she considers the future potential against responsible planning, Sorrell said the City has to be conservative but responsive to growth. She likened it to starting a business and knowing when to invest and when to slow down.
“You start your own business and it is growing really well, so you have to buy more equipment, hire more people, so as you get into a situation where you might have a working capital problem you have to balance that,” she said. “It is the same way in a growing city. You have to make sure you are conservative, but that you’re not so conservative that you don’t appreciate or look at what the potential is.”
Being in a fast-growing city like Liberty Hill also means being more flexible and keeping a closer eye on changes as they arise.
“It is something that requires more time to monitor than if you’re just in a two percent growth rate and it is the status quo,” she said.
While some may cringe at the thought, Sorrell says she loves things like year-end audits, saying she enjoys the fast pace of it. The chance to learn about new and unique financing solutions, such as the public improvement districts the City is establishing, and the tax increment reinvestment zones it is considering is also exciting.
“We’re doing a lot of neat things that offer some complexity and just absorbing every piece of knowledge about those and the people working here is going to be important,” Sorrell said. “It is amazing what the people here have stored in their head, and to be able to take that information and help them is a great challenge.”
She hopes that the relationships she is building with city staff members help foster that team concept she sees in Liberty Hill.
“Lots of finance people are unapproachable and I’ve been around that,” she said. “I have an open door policy and I prefer departments to come talk to me and call me, run things by me and feel like I am an advocate, but also one that needs to make sure the coffers are straight.”