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Newport Beach

Volume 6, Issue 38  | May 11, 2021


Take Five: Meet Newport Beach Finance Director Scott Catlett

By AMY SENK

Scott Catlett joined the City of Newport Beach as the new finance director at the beginning of the year. So far, he has kept busy managing the city’s finances through the ongoing COVID crisis, including implementation of a one-year business license tax waiver that the City Council unanimously approved this spring. He oversees a staff of about 40 and a budget of $340 million with an investment portfolio of $285 million. Now, with new fiscal year city budget hearings about to begin in a few weeks, I thought I’d check in with him to learn more about the job and how he’s settling in.

Take Five Scott Catlett

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of the City of Newport Beach

Scott Catlett

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background in local government finance?

A: I began my career working for a consulting firm specializing in the financial aspects of planning for the construction of major infrastructure and facilities projects. We had a variety of government clients, including state and city governments and large commercial airports. Working as a consultant provided me with a great opportunity to learn about a variety of government agencies around the country of varying size and complexity. In 2006, I transitioned to a position with the City of Riverside, where I started as a principal budget analyst, later progressing to budget and debt manager and then assistant director of the finance department. In 2016, I moved to Orange County and became the finance director for the City of Yorba Linda. Riverside had a number of financial challenges and was a very complex organization with its own electric, water and sewer utilities, and a $1 billion budget. Yorba Linda was much smaller, but was very similar to Newport Beach financially, with growing revenues, large budget reserves, and a focus on strong financial management and fiscal conservatism. Like my consulting work, my time in those two cities has provided me with a variety of experiences that are proving useful as I acclimate to Newport Beach. In addition to my work experience, I have been a volunteer leader in the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers (CSMFO) for 12 years and was recently elected to serve as the organization’s 2022 president. I also have been a member of the adjunct faculty at CSU San Bernardino since 2014, where I teach classes in government finance and budgeting in the Master of Public Administration program. 

Q: What is the role of a finance director in city government and in Newport Beach specially?

A: As Newport Beach’s finance director, I serve as the chief financial officer for the city and oversee the city’s budget, accounting, financial planning, investing, revenue collection, billing, procurement and other related functions. The city has a number of fiscal policies in place that have been approved by the City Council, which emphasize fiscal conservatism and strong financial management. Ensuring that the city’s financial operations adhere to these policies is a big part of my job, as well as recommending updates to them as circumstances change. Newport Beach is fortunate to have the resources to focus funding on key areas of concern for the city council and the community, and I assist the other city departments in addressing those goals through their operations. Many people may not realize that there is a customer-facing element to the finance department as well. The cashiers who take payments at City Hall, the parking staff throughout the city, and the staff in City Hall who manage short-term lodging permits, business licenses and some other types of permits are all part of the finance department. Delivering good service to the customers interacting with the finance department is a priority for me. 

Q: How did COVID impact the Newport Beach city budget and how does it compare to other cities?

A: Newport Beach is fortunate in that over half of the city’s general fund revenue comes from property tax. Property tax revenue has been stable and continued to grow throughout the pandemic, which has insulated Newport Beach somewhat from the severe revenue impacts that some nearby cities have seen. Sales tax revenues, while initially projected to decline rather dramatically, did not fall as far as initially feared and have rebounded as shoppers have become comfortable with venturing out and have shifted some purchases online. The city has not been without budget impacts, however, and the largest portion of the city’s revenue decline was seen in the tax revenue received from hotels. While budget cuts were necessary to offset lost revenues, those cuts were primarily focused on delayed spending for capital projects and one-time budget adjustments that could be made without any service impacts. Throughout the pandemic, the city has taken a cautious approach to spending and has frozen non-essential hiring. Overall, we are very fortunate to have weathered the past year in a strong financial position and on solid footing to move forward as the pandemic subsides. 

Q: What is the outlook for Newport Beach as we emerge from COVID? When can we expect key business sectors like hotels and retail sales to rebound?

A: The city is moving into the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1 with a budget that will be balanced, with budget cuts that were made in the current year largely restored. Assuming that economic conditions continue to improve as most projections assume, the city will be able to continue to provide uninterrupted levels of service in the year ahead. We anticipate that as businesses continue to reopen, we will see further improvement in the city’s revenues, also supported by a gradual return of leisure and business travelers. Sales tax revenues have already largely recovered, and with Orange County quickly moving to less restrictive tiers of restrictions the revenue generated from tourism, restaurants and other sectors that were heavily impacted should continue to increase. The city’s hotels are also seeing increased occupancy levels, which we expect to continue to grow toward a return to pre-pandemic levels sometime in 2022.

Q: What is a typical workday like, and when you’re not at work, what hobbies or pastimes do you enjoy?

A: One of the things I most enjoy about my job is that no two days are the same. While most days include a good bit of time attending meetings and responding to emails, there are always unique projects and issues that come up. We have a hard-working staff of over 40 people in the finance department, and managing our team and providing feedback to my division managers on the issues of the day is a large part of my work. During the quiet parts of my day, I often spend time preparing the reports and presentations that are reviewed by the City Council and the Finance Committee to keep them informed about the city’s finances and seek their direction on key policy considerations. Lastly, as an internal service department we provide assistance to all of the city’s other departments to get their jobs done effectively. On any given day I may be assisting the utilities department, the fire department and the harbor department with three different issues that need input or assistance, and the next day it may be three different departments that I’m working with. In addition to my teaching and volunteer activities, I spend a lot of time with my three young children. I do enjoy the outdoors when I can find the time to get away. I spend time in my garden, whether it’s trimming the roses, planting new plants, or trying – and usually failing – to keep the rabbits out of my back yard. I also enjoy hiking the trails near my home in Yorba Linda, including those in Chino Hills State Park. I find the time outdoors to be a good stress reliever. 

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Amy Senk is a longtime resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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