Mt. Lebanon helps local government streamline finance operations

a man and a woman standing next to each other smiling in an office holding a certificate of an award
Accounting assistant Lisa Gundel and Andrew McCreery, Mt. Lebanon’s finance director, received state-level recognition for their administrative collaboration with Dormont and other communities. /Photography by John Schisler

The Mt. Lebanon Finance Department’s creative problem-solving has garnered it some recognition in Harrisburg.

The municipality is one of 25 local governments and government officials to receive the Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence, presented by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Mt. Lebanon was recognized in the Innovative Community/Governmental Initiatives category, for a new financial collaboration with local municipalities.

Ideas for the program began in September 2022, when Dormont needed to hire a new full-time employee to handle finances, a position it’s filled on and off throughout the years. In conversation with Mt. Lebanon, Dormont Borough Manager Ben Estell wondered if there was a more efficient, cost-effective solution. Finance Director Andrew McCreery proposed that Mt. Lebanon help the neighboring community.

The idea was simple. Dormont would pay Mt. Lebanon to hire a part-time employee to work on its finances, using Mt. Lebanon’s established programs, infrastructure and expertise. “We’re not doing all of their finance, just the things they needed support in,” McCreery explained, namely, accounts payable, bank reconciliation and electronic receipting.

Two principles are key to the cooperative. 1) Mt. Lebanon does not and cannot control Dormont’s cash. 2) Both municipalities must be protected. As McCreery explained, “people change, elected officials change. If this is not the right thing anymore for Dormont or Mt. Lebanon, every process we’ve set up can be cut off and directly transferred to the other.”

The Mt. Lebanon-Dormont partnership eases capacity issues, which are common to small municipalities. With a population of 8,244, according to the 2020 Census, Dormont simply doesn’t have the time or staff to execute a finance program on the same level as Mt. Lebanon, which is home to 34,075 residents.

“One of the big differences I see as a municipal manager between larger communities and smaller communities is capacity,” Estell said. “Where Mt. Lebanon might have four or five people in a department, we typically have one or two. So anytime somebody leaves us, it is a much more difficult transition. One of the most attractive parts of this relationship was that we wouldn’t have one employee overseeing everything. We would have Mt. Lebanon’s finance department, essentially.”

The partnership was fully operational as of April 2023. With cost savings to Dormont, the program is mutually beneficial and lessens redundancy in government operations.

Since then, word spread, and other towns wanted in. Etna and Churchill approached Mt. Lebanon to start their own partnerships. Both communities applied for and received state grants to offset the cost. The outside governments pay the staff person working on their account, in addition to a $1,500 per month overhead fee paid directly to Mt. Lebanon. While this is mostly a goodwill, cooperative effort, Mt. Lebanon does make a small annual profit of roughly $10,000 per partnership.

“We’re trying to make local government better by increasing accountability and transparency, allowing for better budget cycles and decision-making,” McCreery said.

At the awards ceremony in Harrisburg, Gov. Josh Shapiro remarked, “Our city and local governments are where the rubber meets the road; and our 2024 award recipients have shown exceptional dedication, the capacity for innovation and an unwavering focus on making their communities a better place.”

Referring to the mutual benefits of collaboration, McCreery said, “It’s like the saying goes: rising tides lift all boats.”