COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia’s first chief financial officer takes over at a time when the city’s finances are on solid footing after some rocky years.
New city manager Teresa Wilson announced Thursday that she had named Jeff Palen, formerly Columbia’s treasurer, to the position. The 45-year-old’s salary will be $117,500, an increase of $20,600 from the treasurer’s post he has held for about four years.
“The chief financial officer position is one that is of utmost importance to a city of our size,” Wilson said in a statement. “The CFO and those departments that ultimately report to him will establish a cohesion that brings efficiencies to the overall operation of our entire organization.”
“I believe we can continue the positive fiscal path that we are on,” Palen said in the statement.
Palen’s previous financial experience includes being deputy treasurer and deputy auditor for Lexington County as well as serving as CFO at a hospital and controller at a health management firm, according to the city news release.
Wilson, a former assistant city manger, has been in her post as Columbia’s top administrator for about two weeks, succeeding Steve Gantt. As city manager, Wilson hires municipal employees.
Until Palen’s promotion, finance director Bill Ellis had been Columbia’s top financial official. He helped guide the city’s return from three years of misspending and overspending to the tune of at least $24 million in taxpayer money.
Efforts to reach Ellis Thursday were unsuccessful.
Ellis took over after the problems had been discovered. Between 2005 and 2007, City Council voted on annual budgets without knowing how much money they had spent the year before. Columbia had no written accounting policies, paid some of the same bills two or three times, lost $1 million in bad investments and, most damaging of all, overspent its budget on employee health insurance by $18 million. Credit-rating agencies responded by reducing the capital city’s borrowing power.
City Council tightened its spending habits for several years until the city’s books were in the black.
As recently as Tuesday, Ellis still spoke for the city’s finances. He issued a mid-year report to City Council that showed Columbia’s major accounts are doing well. Ellis predicted a solid year if income and expenses hold to the pattern in the first half of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Ellis briefly retired last year and was rehired to the position by Gantt.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.