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Newton stabilized Albany Finance department

Kris Newton served as city of Albany Finance director for six years and worked with the city for 15. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Kris Newton served as city of Albany Finance director for six years and worked with the city for 15. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — It was one of those surreal moments that life throws at us all every now and then.

After 35 years as an employee of the federal government — most as a Marine and as a civilian employee at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany — Tom Newton retired in July of 2007. His wife Kris was a project manager with the city of Albany’s Information Technology department at the time, and the Newtons started making some of the travel plans they’d always talked about.

That’s when fate, in the person of then-Albany City Manager Al Lott, intervened.

“Almost one month to the day after Tom retired, Al Lott called me and my supervisor over to his office,” Kris Newton said. “Mr. Lott asked my supervisor, ‘How will you manage your projects if Kris is gone?’ My supervisor told him they’d have to move some people around and change some responsibilities, but that they’d manage.

“Mr. Lott said, ‘Good, because starting tomorrow Kris will be the city’s new Finance director.’”

Six years and a few days after that unexpected meeting with Albany’s city manager, Newton is finally ready to revisit some of those travel plans that were interrupted with her ascension to the top finance position within the city’s government. She will join Tom in their new home at The Villages neighborhood in central Florida after finishing her tenure as city Finance director Oct. 31.

It will be a bittersweet move.

“My kids and grandkids are here in Albany,” the Hamilton, Ohio, native said of her pending departure. “And I will be leaving behind a second family here in the Finance department. Albany has become home to me, and no matter how hard some of the days with the city have been — we age in dog years here — it’s always been a pleasure to work with the wonderful people here.

“I’m going to miss everyone … but I’m so ready to go.”

City Manager James Taylor has named JoEllen Brophy to serve as interim director of the Finance department, and he said Brophy has some big shoes to fill.

“Kris has done an incredible job of focusing the City Commission and her staff on finances, revenue and cost-cutting,” Taylor said. “She’s been recognized by the state for her excellent service, and she’s really worked hard to turn that department around. We’re going to miss having someone of that cailber in that position, but I expect the same kind of great things from Jo.”

The Newtons were married shortly after Kris graduated high school at age 17. Tom was a private in the Marine Corps at the time, and their first duty assignment together was at 29 Palms, Calif. Both of their daughters — Casey, now 48, and Jenny, 41, who both graduated from Albany State University on the same day as their mother — were born during the Newtons’ four-year stay at 29 Palms.

Tom Newton’s final active Marine Corps duty was at MCLB-Albany from 1976 to 1979, and he and his family moved back to Ohio for a year after the stay in Albany.

“We thought we wanted to go back there,” Kris Newton said. “Tom was working at Wright-Patterson AFB when the winter of 1981 hit. It was a horrible winter; I remember my car’s engine block froze in the cold weather. Tom was offered a civilian position at the Marine base here, and when we thought about the weather in Albany, we came and stayed.”

Kris Newton worked as an internal auditor with the city of Albany for 7 1/2 years and another year and a half as an IT project manager before being named Finance director.

“I’d interviewed for the director’s position, but a CPA from Atlanta got the job,” Newton said. “That didn’t work out so well, and he was let go a short time after he got here.”

Newton took over a department that she diplomatically says “did not have a deep bench.”

“There was just very little training and staff development in the time before I came into that office,” she said. “I told Mr. Lott it would take me a year and a half to two years to turn things around. One thing he did was make sure that we had opportunities for training and staff development, even when there was a heavy emphasis on budget cuts.

“One of the first things I did was make sure this was a happy place to work. People came in here every day scared to leave their offices without checking the temperature to see if it was safe, but we changed that. A lot of the people who were problems left the department when they heard I’d been hired, and, in the words of Mr. Lott, we ‘put some of them on roller skates and greased the wheels.’ We made sure we hired people with strong skill sets and avoided the people who were what (former Finance employee) Ken Dyer called ‘pot-stirrers.’”

The Finance department quickly took a turn for the better, and it was soon recognized by state officials for its efficiency. Newton said the turnaround was due to her staff’s willingness to work.

Of course, she set the tone.

“For the first three years or so, I lived up here,” she said. “There were plenty of 12-hour days, and I spent a lot of weekend time at the office. I couldn’t have done it without Tom’s help. He was so supportive, and he understood that I didn’t have much left some days when I got home. A lot of days he’d cook food for the whole staff and bring it down here. That brought us all closer together.

“In my six years, I’m really proud of the level of training that we’ve given our employees. And I’m proudest of the free employee health clinic that’s in place now. (Former Mayor) Dr. (Willie) Adams wanted us to have the clinic, and he told me to make it happen. We did everything from getting the furniture to the towels to the paper towels, and employees from several city departments pitched in. It was a total team effort.”

Current Finance employees Brophy, budget officer Larry Johnson and accounting manager Derrick Brown interviewed for the interim position to replace Newton, and Taylor selected Brophy. Newton said all three were qualified.

“It was Mr. Taylor’s decision, but I told him all three were capable of filling the position,” Newton said. “Jo’s so scary smart, I feel confident she’ll do a great job.”

The interim Finance director said her soon-to-be former boss helped prepare her.

“Kris has this huge amount of knowledge and history with the city,” Brophy said. “Since I’ve gotten here, she’s been open to share what she knows. Anyone who is willing to learn, she’s willing to teach. Without her help, I don’t know that I’d be as ready for this challenge as I am.

“She’ll definitely be missed. We all love her and wish her well.”

Newton, meanwhile, said she’ll probably “spend about three months or so relaxing and playing,” then she’ll start looking for something to do.

“I’m not a joiner like Tom,” she said. “I’m thinking about volunteering to cook at a soup kitchen in a nearby town. I don’t think I can sit around and do nothing.”

With a family cruise already planned for December and all those delayed travel plans to get back to — plus three grandkids to spoil — Newton’s friends and co-workers know there’s little chance of that happening.