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Day: January 2, 2016

Ready for the slopes

After serving as Keizer's Finance Director for 18 years, Susan Gahlsdorf is retiring and will be focused on things like skiing, not financial and compliance books. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)
After serving as Keizer’s Finance Director for 18 years, Susan Gahlsdorf is retiring and will be focused on things like skiing, not financial and compliance books. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

If you’re looking to catch up with Susan Gahlsdorf after Jan. 8, make sure your skis are ready.

That’s the day Gahlsdorf officially retires from the city of Keizer after 18 years as Finance Manager. Tim Wood is filling the spot on an interim basis and has expressed interest in the job on a permanent basis.

Gahlsdorf has been in public service for more than 30 years, including her time at the state, but is looking forward to her next phase. In a way, her timing couldn’t be better.

“I plan to do a lot of skiing and this season has started out great with lots of snow,” she said. “I skied regularly as a kid as I grew up near Mt. Bachelor.Then I set it aside to spend time with my family and to focus on my work. Over 30 years later, I took it up again. After a few runs, it all came back to me and now I’m hooked again.”

Mind you, Gahlsdorf won’t be just skiing after retiring.

“I’ve worked a very sedentary job in my 30-some years in finance,” she said. “Now I look forward to a more active lifestyle and plan to ski, cycle, golf, travel and learn new stuff while I am still young enough to enjoy these things.”

As mentioned in a September 2010 Keizertimes story, Gahlsdorf is the daughter of a pilot yet was scared of flying herself. She credits her sons, now 28 and 24, for getting her over that fear.

“My kids were my inspiration,” she said. “Oliver flew off to Australia to become a surfer dude for a year and Wendell left to pursue studies in Colorado. I admired their courage and realized I couldn’t just hang out at home. I was missing out.

“So I decided to take a ‘face your fears’ cycling tour in Italy,” Gahlsdorf added. “I hadn’t been on a bike since I crash landed in the hos- pital several years earlier. I had to get on a plane, then get on a bike. It was the best trip ever. Last year we did another cycling tour, this time in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. Next year we’re headed to Sicily with our group of cycling friends and we look forward to many more adventures.”

While Gahlsdorf is leaving the city on Jan. 8, she has been easing into the retirement and put a transition plan into place well in advance.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into retirement over the past couple of years,” she said. “I’ve seen others retire and the rest of us move on. I’ve heard it can be hurtful and isolating. The transition I’ve worked on over the past year has been very purposeful and I believe good for the city and me. I didn’t want to wake up one day not knowing what to do with myself.And I didn’t want to leave the city scratching its head wondering what all my responsibilities were and what direction I was going. Now, staff is cross-trained on all my major duties and I have a huge list of new pursuits. It’s good closure for all involved.”

One of Gahlsdorf’s chief jobs has been preparing the budget for city councilors each year.The process typically starts in October, when staff reviews the city’s financial position and identifies emerging issues. The budget document is updated with fresh data, formulas and templates.The next step comes this month when councilors update their goals for the year ahead, giving direction to funding priorities. The final budget has to be approved by councilors by the end of June.

“We make a point each year to focus on improvements to our budget,” Gahlsdorf said. “Over the years, we have automated many processes, which have simplified things. That has freed up our time for long-range planning, scenario testing and improved forecasting techniques.”

The effort has paid off: the past two years, Keizer has gotten a national award from the Government Finance Officers Association Distinguished Budget Presentation Award Program.

“It’s all about priorities,” Gahlsdorf said of balancing requests with the budget limit. “What’s hard is telling people what they need to know which is often not what they want to hear. It’s very emotional for people. Staff does not control the revenue stream. We work with what we have and manage the city’s funds responsibly.”

Gahlsdorf noted the city is in good shape financially.

“We have a strong control system to safeguard our assets,” she said. “We adhere to best practices for reporting, accounting and budgeting. We have a transparent operation, clean books, clean audit opinions and knowledgeable staff. Our approach is moderation; not too conservative as to constrain services and not too aggressive which would risk our basic operations. We have a strong bond rating and a secure revenue stream to repay our debt. This is a good foundation for the next finance director.”

Over the years, Gahlsdorf said the city has built cash reserves and has sufficient working capital for daily operations as well as bigger projects that have come up, in addition to future ones.

Gahlsdorf called resolving the Keizer Station Local Improvement District finances the most challenging as well as the most rewarding work. The city had more than $20 million in debt on the development and several properties went into default. The LID debt has since been paid down.

“I had the privilege of working with a great group of people in a great community,” Gahlsdorf said. “I am most proud of the finance staff and the team we’ve built over the years. They are a very hard working, dedicated group and many of them have been with the city for more than 10 years. They are committed to service and finding solutions that will fit both the customer’s and the city’s needs.”

Now Gahlsdorf looks forward to the future, no matter where that adventure might take her.

“I am so fortunate because I have the life I envisioned all those years ago – and much more,” she said. “No regrets here. Even the most difficult challenges and experiences provide the best opportunity for growth and an appreciation for what I have. My husband Dave and I have worked hard building our careers, raising our two sons, renovating our home and building our financial security. We met in business school at Oregon State University and have been together for over 35 years. We enjoy many of the same things. We have a fabulous life, and family and friends with whom to share it. I am looking forward to enjoying what we’ve built together.”