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Financial Experts Share Their Best Practices for Staying on Mission as a Top-Rated Park District

Finance professionals Sue Stanish, Tom Sawyer and Eric Anderson shed light on financial strategies that help maintain the Naperville Park District’s Aaa bond rating and readiness to meet future challenges.

This episode was recorded in June 2019 as an informational interview for interested residents and anyone who wants to know more about local government finances.  For a list of other ParkTalk episodes and series and to submit ideas and questions, visit

Quotes from the episode:

“We're a money manager that really helps the Park District advance its goals given the constraints of Illinois statutes and how we're allowed to manage the money.” – Tom Sawyer

“It's the long-term conservative planning that sets the District apart from many other governments.” – Eric Anderson

“I think it speaks a lot to community trust that when you have an independent agency looking at what we're doing financially and they can say you are doing the best that we will award.” – Sue Stanish

Guest Biographies:

Sue Stanish, Director of Finance, Naperville Park District

Sue Stanish joined the Naperville Park District as the Director of Finance in January 2011. A Certified Public Accountant, she brings more than 20 years of leadership and work experience in municipal finance with employers that include the Village of Willowbrook, City of Naperville and KPMG Peat Marwick.

Sue currently represents the District on the Park District Risk Management Agency (PDRMA) Finance Committee. Her professional memberships include: the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) and the Illinois Government Finance Officers Association (IGFOA) where she currently serves as Past President of the Executive Board. Sue also has served IGFOA in several other capacities including leading the IGFOA's Career Development Committee to develop and provide educational seminars for its members. Additionally, she served as an Executive Board member of the Illinois Metropolitan Investment Fund (IMET). Sue received her Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from DePaul University and is a graduate of the Rocky Mountain Executive Management Program.

Thomas S. Sawyer, Managing Partner, Sawyer Falduto Asset Management, LLC

Mr. Sawyer has over twenty-eight years of experience in the public fund arena. Mr.Sawyer and his business partner, John Falduto, formed their company, Sawyer Falduto Asset Management, LLC, in September 2007. Sawyer Falduto Asset Management, LLC is a registered investment advisory firm specializing in providing investment management services to Illinois police and firefighter pension funds, local units of government and high net worth individuals. Sawyer Falduto currently manages over $3 billion in discretionary assets.

Prior to his current position, Mr. Sawyer was Senior Executive Vice President and Head of the Wealth Management Division of Oak Brook Bank, Oak Brook, Illinois from 1998 through 2007. During his tenure at Oak Brook Bank, the Wealth Management Division provided investment management and administrative services to clients with more than $1.2 billion in discretionary assets.

From 1988 to 1998, Mr. Sawyer was employed with the Investment Management and Trust Division of Old Kent Bank where Mr. Sawyer was Vice President – Director of Portfolio Management for Old Kent Bank – Illinois located in Elmhurst, Illinois. Mr. Sawyer began his career as a trader, research analyst and portfolio manager with First Tennessee Investment Management, Inc., a division of First Tennessee Bank, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Eric N. Anderson, Managing Director, Public Finance, Piper Jaffray & Company
Eric Anderson brings 26+ years of public finance experience serving mid-market municipal clients in Illinois, joining Piper Jaffray as a Managing Director in October of 2015.  Eric provides assistance to issuers contemplating debt issuance, including refunding transactions, tax rate management, debt structuring as well as feasibility and budget impact analysis.  Eric has structured and originated over $4.7 billion in various types of public debt since 1994.  

Clients include park districts, schools, community colleges and fire protection districts in addition to cities, village and counties, and has significant experience with and successful workouts of challenged credits along with representation of highest rated units of government in the nation.

Mr. Anderson earned both a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and Masters of Business Administration from Northern Illinois University, and is a Certified Public Accountant.  He holds Series 50, 52 and 63 licenses.

Find the Park District's Annual Reports listed here (or click on the image below):

Find the Park District's 2019 Budget Snapshot and other financial documents here or click on the image below:

Transcript of the Podcast

Sameera Luthman: Hello everyone, I'm Sameera Luthman, Director of Marketing for the Naperville Park District, and I'm your host for this edition of ParkTalk podcast. We'll be talking about the ins and outs of the District's finances and hopefully answering many of the questions that residents have on what can be a fairly complex topic.

I am pleased to welcome to the studio three guests: Sue Stanish, Director of Finance for the Park District, Tom Sawyer, Managing Partner at Sawyer Falduto Asset Management and Eric Anderson, Managing Director at Piper Jaffray and Company. Thanks to all of you for being here for this important conversation.

As a District, we talk frequently about the importance of being good stewards of the District's resources and one of those most important resources is our finances. I think it's important to start with some of the basics and help explain how Naperville Park District gets things done from a financial perspective. So, Sue, I'm actually going to start with you. Would you please explain where the District's funding comes from? And then also talk a bit about how the District manages its financial resources.

Sue Stanish:  Sure, first let's start with an overall structure. We are the fifth largest (park) district in the state, and we have our own governing board of commissioners that are elected. We are an independent taxing body, which is really important. To get down to our major funding sources, how we do so much at the Park District. The first one is property taxes, which comprise about 55% of all of our revenues to provide the services that we do followed by 24% in program user fees. And that's what, as a resident or a non-resident, you're paying to participate in our programs annually. Between those two revenue sources, that pretty much comprises the majority of what we get on an annual basis, both for operating and capital purposes. And I know we're going to hear from Eric, later about the whole debt funding, which is another piece of our financial picture.

How do we manage it? I'll just start from the top down. Our board of commissioners sets policies for us and we really, on a day-to-day-to-day basis, follow those policies in order to make things happen. Scrolling down from there, we have plans and we have budgets and we have directors that head each department and bring it down to a staff level. I'll talk a little bit later about some of those plans and programs on a short-term basis, monthly, down to some long-term planning that we do that is vital to managing our financial resources.

Sameera: Okay, great, and I'm very involved in the budget process at one point in time, during the year. You're obviously involved in it a year round. So with being somewhat on the periphery, I see a lot of the different pieces that go into the process, but with all these different pieces to consider, would you also explain how the District coordinates its budget, including the planning, the process and management all while taking into consideration other District processes and plans?

Sue: Sure, so we do have an annual budget and really it's become a year-long process. The actual budget itself process starts in July, we approve our final budget in December, we are on a calendar year, we do budget on a monthly basis, so a lot of work goes into preparing our annual budget. So through the year, we're looking at those numbers and we report that to our board on a monthly basis, which is great when we talk about financial stewardship. Internal controls always comes up as a key factor to making sure our assets are safe.

So our finance team, which there are four of us, two of us (Jeremy link and myself) specifically looking at the finances on a daily basis, drilling down to that level of looking at what's running through our financials to monthly reporting to the board as I had mentioned. That rolls into an annual budget and we also do a three-year financial plan and that really gives us a road map for the next couple of years of where we are headed, what our challenges are going to be so we can be proactive and not reactive for those things.

We have a master plan that our planning department heads that really directs the long-term focus of all of our plans and facilities going forward. We have a non-tax revenue plan— we do a lot of planning here at the District!

Sameera: That's for sure!

Sue: So I don't want go on... but all of those plans all are interconnected. They all roll into each other. So we have strategic plans; we are continually planning, re-adjusting, refocusing as things come up and change in the environment that we're in.

Sameera: There's definitely a lot of planning going on. And you mentioned a lot of things from an internal perspective, and things that we're doing as an organization, but I know that we also rely on external resources. So Tom, I'm going to throw the next question to you. Would you please explain how you work with the District and what expertise you provide?

Tom Sawyer: Sure, I'd be glad to do. So we are a registered investment advisor and the majority of our business is working with the public fund community in some capacity, so it's really a niche market that we formed for the year, so we were a natural fit with Naperville to work with dollars that they maybe have set on the side lines that are not for immediate use, but they're either targeted for planning in the future or to be used for capital projects, something along those lines. So our job in our relationship with Naperville is to manage those dollars that are on reserve for different purposes, out there in the future, and it's important that we work closely with the finance department and the finance director to understand the budgeting process. We do attend quarterly finance committee meetings and much of that information is shared with us to make sure that we have the portfolio aligned properly with the objectives of the Park District over time. In the general environment of public funds, it's important I think to mention that it's heavily regulated by statute, and I think that's part of what we bring to the table through the years, is that we've managed quite a number of pools within the Public Funds Investment Act. That's really the beginning of the framework that defines how we manage the money. And it’s designed to be very risk-managed in that context. You're limited in the nature of the securities that you can own and the safety and quality. So it's always a balancing act between maximizing the performance of the fund, but doing it within the proper constraints of risk management and the financial objectives of the District.

So much of our time in working with the Park District is focused on investment policy and strategy to make sure that we're properly aligned with those objectives and doing it in a way that we're not taking undo risk to get there.

And then I think that's complemented by meeting with members of the board or the finance committee periodically to give them an update. We typically will do that quarterly or as the board requests and visit about those types of topics. So we're a money manager that really helps the Park District advance its goals given the constraints of Illinois statutes and how we're allowed to manage the money.

Sameera: Sure, so it sounds like you're a really integral part of the whole planning picture, too.

Tom: I like to think that we are.

Sue: Absolutely

Sameera: Eric, would you please talk about your role working with the Park District and how you assist the organization from a financial perspective?

Eric Anderson: Sure, and thanks for having me today. Our role is to provide the District with information, financial in nature, and especially interest rate-driven and funding options that allow for prudent decisions and policy making by the Board of Commissioners when considering the issuance of debt to fund their capital projects. We work with the District’s executive team to supply capital planning in order to develop financing choices that consider future projects both large and small in nature. We then develop a financial roadmap that considers how the actions of today will impact the ability to continue reinvesting in the District's assets over time all while protecting the District’s highly coveted Triple A rating.

It's the long-term conservative planning that sets the District apart from many other governments. The Naperville Park District maintains a capital plan that is updated very frequently as we've already talked about today. A careful debt approach that doesn't depend on growth allows for the District to take advantage of opportunities, such as the acquisition of Nike Park, as well as the funding of construction of Fort Hill Activity Center and leveraging grant funding received from the State of Illinois.

The District balances an approach called “pay as you go,” which is the funding of capital projects with existing funds on hand, with “pay as you use,” which is the funding of projects with debt in order to deliver the projects that are seen throughout the District.

Sameera: That's great, and from everything that I'm gathering from both of you talking about how you work with the District, I'm feeling the theme of stewardship coming up and just how can we be responsible and how can we plan ahead as an organization, and how can we be sustainable into the future. So that's great. I think that speaks volumes for where we are as a District, and where we're headed.

Eric: It's a very cultural high priority that I've witnessed here. Yes.

Sameera. Absolutely. In late 2018, the District was again awarded the highest rating of a Triple A bonding as you had mentioned, Eric, from Moody's Investor Service, and this marked 10 years of the Park District achieving this highest rating, which is just such a feather in our cap; we’re so proud of that. Eric, why is a distinction such as the Triple A bond rating important and in particular, what does it mean for the Naperville community as a whole, why is that important?

Eric: Well, Sam, as you mentioned, the District earned that Triple-A rating 10 years ago in 2008, when it issued the debt to acquire Nike Park, the actual site itself. At the time it was only the second park district in Illinois to receive the Triple-A rating. And while it’s certainly important for institutional pride, the Triple-A rating allows the District to sell its debt at the lowest rates available, enabling more capital projects and less interest paid, and indeed, each dollar saved in lower interest costs equals a like amount of money that can be spent on projects. That's probably the number one, outside of the institutional pride. Leveraging your dollars for projects, for residents to enjoy, is the outcome.

Sameera: Absolutely. And then Tom, I'm curious too, from an investment perspective, what does the Triple-A rating mean to you?

Tom: That's a great question, and we look at it from a different direction than Eric.  So for example, the Park District should be very proud for the years that it has maintained that Triple-A rating. Having been in this business for a long time, you don't see that many of them out there. It truly is a rare commodity. We, as an investment advisor and a money manager, would be a customer of that, so, credit quality ratings to us tell us something about the quality of the organization. So if I were managing money for someone else and perhaps looking at a Naperville Park District bond issue, that Triple-A rating carries a lot of weight in our decision to include that security in the portfolio so it certainly is a gold standard in this market from a credit worthiness a point of view, and that's how we would view it.

Sam: Sure, that's great. And Sue, I'm just wondering, what are some additional reasons that the rating is so crucial to our operations as a District?

Sue: Sure and I will not repeat what Eric and Tom have just said, but really from our perspective and maybe it speaks to pride, but I also think it speaks to management and fiscal responsibility because it really means that we're all sailing the ship in the same direction as far as our goals and our long-term planning and how we set aside funds for reserve for unexpected things that may come up, that's all very important. And also, I think it speaks a lot to community trust that when you have an independent agency looking at what we're doing financially and they can say you are doing the best that we will award. As someone living in a community, I would feel it's an extra layer of trust, that we are doing the right things for the long-term health of the Park District and to continue providing the excellent services that we do.

Sameera: Again, it's that whole stewardship idea, which I think is just as a District, we carry forth in a lot of different ways. Sue, I'm going to go back to you for a minute. We've talked a lot about the plans, the reports, the budgets, etc., all those things that support the goals, and the direction of the Park District. Exactly how do all of these resources, combine to help support and shape the District's financial picture?

Sue: Now I'm going to be repetitive because really, when we look, we don't look at how we're going to do tomorrow we look at 10 years out, what is this District going to look like? So all of the planning that we're doing, both short and long term, really is about accountability, public trust and long-term sustainability:  that we're going to be able to continue in the future. And provide new things and be on the cutting edge of technologies and recreational opportunities that we don't even know exist yet. We want to be able to bring that to our community and offer those at a fair price and be cognizant of the taxes that come to us.

And so, it's really all about stewardship, and I think long-term financial stability that will allow the work that's done by so many people here, for them to get that done and with the backbone of support from the community that they can do those and accomplish those things.


Sameera: And I think it's totally fine being repetitive on that aspect because I don't think you can over-emphasize that enough.

Sue: It really drives the policies, and our long-term vision (and our goals and our mission) drives day-to-day decisions here that have impacts stretching years into the future. So sure, and you know as well as I do, when we're in its leadership team, and we're talking as a group and with our professionals, it's always about what we're doing today, how does it impact tomorrow? And all those plans roll into that.

Sameera: Sure, definitely. I feel like a lot of people are interested in finances, particularly when it comes to a government agency, but maybe people don't necessarily know the right questions to ask or even how to dig through a lot of the information that can be kind of a voluminous and obviously very numbers driven. For residents who are interested in learning about the District finances and plans, we do offer a couple of resources. Sue, do you want to talk about those?

Sue: Sure we do, and obviously we have an annual audit that's pretty comprehensive, but if you wanted to get a snapshot, we do an annual report every year. It highlights the finances for that year and also the trends of our major programs: what's going on in the parks, our facilities. That's a great document, and it is available on our website. We also, annually, as I said we do a budget that's about 200 pages. Who wants to look through that except maybe us in finance? But we do a budget snapshot, which is probably a three or four-page synopsis of what's in the budget: our goals, what we accomplished in the current year we're in, and what we're looking to do next year. It gives highlights of the budget, and I would really recommend that those two documents will give you a really nice overview of what's going on at the Park District. And of course, anyone who has questions is always welcome to contact me. All my information is on our website. I would be happy to meet or discuss that with anyone interested.

Sameera: Fantastic. I have one final question, and I'm interested in finding out each of your perspectives on this, so I'm going to start with Eric. What do you foresee as the most significant challenge or challenges facing the Naperville Park District?

Eric: The number one challenge and it really is across the nation, and so it's not unique to Naperville Park District, but it's really facing all of those taxing bodies, especially here in Illinois, and that is: funding pensions. Naperville Park District is not immune to that challenge, but they have funded their pension obligations properly in past years in order to lessen the pressure especially in the future and to continue to fund that obligation.

Sameera: Okay, thank you. Tom.

Tom:  From a little different perspective I would have to say it's probably the compressed interest rate environment that we exist in today. And from an investor's perspective, or a lender’s perspective, it's pretty tough. From a borrower’s, you know, it’s not so bad because your cost of doing business perhaps is a little less expensive, but in the end we remain in a very low interest rate environment. Current indications are short-term rates may well move lower before they move higher in the near term, and that certainly affects the Park District’s reserve dollars directly in terms of what they can earn. So I think through the years it's always important that you remember to not yield unto temptation and then try to stretch the bounds of your investment portfolio beyond prudence, but stick to your knitting, be patient. That rate structure will change over time. So from my perspective, it really is the structure of interest rates that is a bit of a challenge in this kind of an environment.


Sameera: Okay, and finally, Sue what are your thoughts?

Sue: I would say we do such a great job here and I know we have staff that is busy, our facilities are successful and busting at the seams. I think our challenge is going to be, to continue providing new innovative programs with space constraints, so that's something we're going to be looking at, is how do we get those folks off our waiting lists and get them active and I think that is a challenge that we're going to be, short and long-term, having to face.

Sameera: Sure, how do we continue to fulfill our mission and in the best way possible, right? And I think that you all hit the nail on the head. I think those are all challenges that the District's going to face, but fortunately we're a strong organization, we've got great people behind us, whether it's internal staff or external resources, like both of you gentlemen.  I'm confident that we're up to the challenge, so I want to thank my guests for their time and insightful discussions. Sue, Tom and Eric I appreciate you being a part of this ParkTalk podcast episode.


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