State's top numbers man retires

Longtime accountant plans to turn from state work to volunteering

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2003

When state accountant Joe Thomas retires Monday after 27 years in state service, he hopes to trade in his calculator for children's books by volunteering at schools.

In his office Thursday, Thomas, 55, reminisced about a childhood spent reading, and laments that children today don't read as much.

"I don't ever recall being bored as a kid," he said. "Nowadays I hear 'I'm so bored' all the time."

When he was in the seventh grade, Thomas was out of school for two months with pneumonia. He spent the time keeping up with school work and reading books, including Walter Farley's children's classic, "The Black Stallion," a story of a boy and a wild horse stranded on a desert island.

These days, Thomas still reads - Stephen King and Dean Koontz are among his favorite authors - but some of his reading material has titles such as "Governmental Accounting Standards."

He has served as state accountant for 16 years, having spent 11 years as a legislative auditor and several years working for the city. He remembers the exact date he arrived in Juneau - April 7, 1971. He moved to Alaska after college to be with his ex-wife, who is from Juneau. After spending half a year laying carpet and tile, he began working for the city as an accountant.

As state accountant, Thomas' job is to be the "conscience of state government for fiscal matters," according to his boss, Kim Garnero.

"So many people around state government rely on the state accountant for advice, for guidance on everything from travel (expense) rules, which are incredibly complex, to IRS compliance, their payroll, making transactions in a way that keeps us out of trouble with the IRS," said Garnero, the director of the Division of Finance in the Department of Administration.

She said the position has been filled temporarily with an acting state accountant, Lisa Pusich.

"She's got big shoes to fill. (Thomas) is the most optimistic, the most constructive, very positive. He knows what the rules are; he can explain them to people and make them want to follow them," Garnero said.

And he has had to. One of Thomas' duties was to set the state's travel expense policies, and he says in the past employees have become upset over them.

"But, when you try to manage state funds, you want to be frugal, and not wasteful," he said. "How would it look in the newspaper? That's a big key in a lot of places."

Thomas also must work with the IRS in his job, and occasionally has run up against touchy issues. In the late 1980s, he said, the state unknowingly violated IRS codes by treating its reimbursement of state legislators' moving expenses as tax-exempt. Thomas received a call from an IRS agent, and the state had to begin reporting the reimbursement.

Even with such moments, Thomas says he will miss working for the state.

"I will miss the interaction with the people," he said.

But he's got a lot to look forward to, including the fifth Harry Potter book, which he picked up at Costco on the day it was released, and the possibility of buying a motorcycle.

Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.



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