After a 2-year search, Brattleboro still can’t find a finance director

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A Covid-19 sign outside the Brattleboro town government’s finance department, which has been seeking a director for two years. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — When Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell announced he would retire at the end of the year, locals said the second-generation leader (his father held the post from 1960 to 1989) was seemingly irreplaceable. Even so, the municipality has found a successor.

When the community went on to search for a new police chief, residents who were split over defunding versus defending the department couldn’t believe they’d agree on a candidate. Then the town came together to hire the first Black woman to hold the post not only locally but also statewide.

Now Brattleboro is seeking a finance director to replace a behind-the-scenes number-cruncher most people can’t name. Candidates should be able to add and subtract budget figures, bill and collect taxes and oversee payroll Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We will consider any combination of relevant work experience, volunteering, education and transferable skills as qualifying,” read one help-wanted ad.

And yet, after a two-year search, the town government still hasn’t filled the position.

“It has been a long and unhappy journey,” Elwell recently told the selectboard.

The search began in 2019 when John O’Connor, then finance director, announced his retirement. The town advertised for applicants twice, only to end up with someone who lasted just four months.

“That didn’t work out,” Elwell said without further comment.

The town hoped the third time would be the charm.

“We’ve had multiple close calls,” Elwell said. “Folks in some cases were very well qualified but it just didn’t quite work out to be a move they or their family wanted to make. In other cases, when we dug a little deeper, we saw things for us to say ‘whoa’ and didn’t make an offer.”

The town thought it finally found a candidate this fall, only to discover it hadn’t.

“And we are commencing a new search,” Elwell said, again without elaborating.

In the meantime, the town government is getting by with a consultant who’s working for about $60,000 less than the director’s budgeted salary of $83,000.

“It’s a savings we’d rather not realize,” Elwell said. “What we have now is very good oversight but not day-to-day financial management. We’d rather be spending the money and having somebody here.”

But seemingly no one wants to take it.

“We haven’t yet lost somebody because we didn’t pay enough,” Elwell said. “We’ve lost people for all kinds of other reasons — their own personal choices or we found things that surprised and disappointed us.”

The problem isn’t limited to the public sector. Nearly a dozen private employers in Brattleboro are advertising to fill similar openings. 

And it’s not just local. The city of Gering, Nebraska, whose population is slightly less than Brattleboro’s 12,184, just made news for its own difficulty in hiring a finance director.

“I think there’s a national trend going on right now,” Gering Administrator Pat Heath told his state’s Star-Herald. “I hope it ends soon.”