Carter leaves port after 17 years, joins city staff
It’s been a long time since John Carter had a new job.
After working as the chief financial officer for the Port of Bellingham for 17 years, Carter left the port to become the city’s finance director. When Carter started in late January, he became the first city finance director to be appointed, rather than elected.
The BBJ recently sat down with Carter in his new office at City Hall to discuss his career, the waterfront, and the new challenges he faces.
BBJ: How long did you work for the Port of Bellingham and what did your job entail?
Carter: I was hired at the port in September 1990. Over the years, I had always been the financial officer, but the port is a much smaller organization — there’s about 90 people — so I picked up a number of responsibilities off and on during those years including economic development. I also ran the marine terminals division for five years when we were working to try to figure out how to replace Georgia-Pacific’s business that was pulled out.
So I had a much broader scope of duties there, but that’s more common in smaller organizations.
BBJ: Why did you leave the port after working there for so long?
Carter: Well, a couple of things. In my field, in public finance, there are a lot of opportunities but not that many opportunities that would be larger than what I had at the port. The recruiter and Therese [Holm] and I had different conversations about this job and I said ‘you know what, that might be interesting for me to apply for.’
I left the port with a lot of good friends. I felt like I was a contributor there and I felt like I had participated in a lot of important decisions. So that was hard to leave. But at the same time this kind of an opportunity for me to expand my own responsibilities and duties at a larger organization — those aren’t going to come around often.
BBJ: What were some of your accomplishments at the port that you are particularly proud of?
Carter: I feel like probably the biggest thing that I accomplished, and I did this in conjunction with other staff people too, was providing the port with a strong financial template for making decisions. We had a structure that said ‘here’s how we frame these things.’ We would build business plans, we would look at financial analysis, we would look at operating costs and capital costs.
And I think I created a financial stability that allowed the port to triple its assets over that 17 years. There was a lot of expansion done — we tripled our revenue and we tripled our asset base.
BBJ: After spending so much time with the port, has it been difficult at all to transition to a public entity that is larger, both in staff and budget?
Carter: The nuance that has kind of been interesting for me is that there’s a number of positions that I’m engaged in as the finance director that I didn’t even know that I’d be involved with. I’m on a utility review board. If you have a leak in your water system and your water bill is extremely high, there’s an appeal process for looking at that. And I’m on that board. I had no idea that even existed.
From the standpoint of the budget, to be honest, whether you do $10 million or $100 million, the issues on financing and the issues on accounting are pretty similar. It’s been understanding the culture and the nature of what each department does and their job structures, those kinds of things, that are going to take me awhile.
BBJ: The day after City Council approved your appointment, Mayor Dan Pike was quoted in The Bellingham Herald saying he was impressed that you were upfront about not divulging private port information. What did you mean by that?
Carter: I don’t know if the mayor was misquoted or said that as a summary of that conversation, but my intent in that was to have this understanding between the two partners before there would be a potential for dispute.
It was interesting to me that that was part of the controversy in my hiring, when the statement that he made was not the statement that I had made to anybody. We did have a conversation about the integrity of the position and the fiduciary duties and all that, and that was important.
BBJ: How do you expect the recent changes to the Business and Occupation tax to affect business in Bellingham?
Carter: My sense on the B&O tax is there’s obviously going to be some people who are affected from the standpoint of having to pay more taxes. Some may pay less.
But overall, I think it is incumbent on the public sector in general to be looking at tax policies at the state level, federal level and local level to make sure we’re creating an environment where we can fund the public services that are necessary but still create an environment where businesses can thrive. And that is a fine balancing act.
BBJ: How will you advise the mayor and the city about funding the waterfront redevelopment project?
Carter: I had worked with Therese [Holm] on funding models for over two years. So that’s one of the few projects that I probably have a good awareness of in the city.
My primary role will be helping the project manager Len Johnson, and the mayor and others that are involved understand the different cost structures of different design plans, whether it be infrastructure planning or land- use planning.
The other piece that I think I can bring value to is I have quite a bit of experience of handling leasing and development property. The city also owns part of the waterfront. So I think I can be helpful in helping the city understand a little bit better what some of the options are as far as funding and developing out those properties as city owned properties.
BBJ: What are your goals and priorities for the city finance department in the near future?
Carter: In the near future I’m trying to get broad exposure for myself in all the departments. I’m trying to get around to each of the departments so I understand from their perspective what their priorities are. From my view, finance and accounting and the treasury function are a tool to help the rest of the management team do what they need to do, because they’re the ones who are delivering the services and delivering the projects.
Number two is I’m spending time trying to understand what the mayor’s priorities are and how those interface into what we have now in our budget and a long term strategy. I think that any entity, whether it be government or business, needs to use finance as a means to meet their strategic goals, and we need to be looking forward using historic information as a gauge. So I’m hoping to build a good knowledge base about where we want to be in the future, because I think that’s important for me and my role.
BBJ: Lastly, do you enjoy your new job?
Carter: You know, enjoy is a funny word. There has been a lot of stimulation. I’ve enjoyed developing the relationships and the organization itself.
It feels like you’re kind of walking into the hundredth minute of a two-hour movie. OK, what was in the first 10 minutes of the movie? There’s a lot to learn. Anytime you’re in a learning process, that can be an enjoyable experience.
Bio: John Carter
Wife, Carrie, two sons, two daughters
Central Washington University
Favorite place in Whatcom County:
Whatcom Falls Park
Good book you read recently:
“Shrouds of Glory” by Winston Groom, “Lead like Jesus” by Ken Blanchard