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Finance director looks back on career

January 3, 2012

PAWTUCKET — Fourteen years ago, Ronald Wunschel answered a newspaper advertisement for a city finance director's position that was placed by newly elected Mayor James E. Doyle. Now, after honoring his commitment to stay on and help with the transition under Doyle's successor, Mayor Donald R. Grebien, Wunschel has officially hung up his calculator, and is heading off to a well-deserved retirement.
Wunschel, 65, had spent some 30 years in the private banking industry when he became the city's top financial official. When he graduated with a college degree in business administration, he had intended to work in marketing. However, back in 1968, he took a job with the Attleboro Trust savings bank and he liked it. “I saw people staying at that little bank until retirement, and I thought, that's what I would like to do-stay at just one place the whole time,” said Wunschel. “So when they offered me an accounting trainee position, I took it.”
Wunschel did stay at the bank for many years, and when his boss went to work for the institution's holding company, he took the big leap into the position of vice president and comptroller. However, the bank was later swallowed up by one merger after another and Wunschel eventually was squeezed out through downsizing. He commuted to a credit union job in Boston for several years and was working as a consultant for a credit union in Warwick when he noticed the Pawtucket finance director's job.
Although he was born and raised in Pawtucket and also lived in the city, he said he did not know James Doyle at all prior to his hiring. He credits the former mayor with doing a comprehensive screening for the job candidates, noting that his interview panel consisted of several other municipal finance directors. “I began work on April Fool's Day. I didn't even realize it, but other people did,” he noted, with a smile.
Wunschel said that when Doyle took office, he inherited a situation of depleted cash reserves and a $4.5 million lawsuit facing the city for a sanitation truck accident. Over the years, the budget situation has ebbed and flowed, although he said the $12 million deficit that Grebien faced upon taking office was the worst he had seen since working in the municipal government arena.
Through Wunschel's careful steering, the city's budget stabilized, the reserves were built back up, and the bond rating rose to an impressive A1 designation from the major investment services. “The biggest thing I enjoyed was watching our bond rating go to A1,” he noted. “We were doing well for many years. But, with no tax increases or low tax increases, the problem with cash flow rears its ugly head.”
The finance director noted that the city had passed a synchronization bond to better align its tax collection with its cash flow prior to his coming on board, so was able to get along without any borrowing through Tax Anticipation Notes (TANs) for many years.
Wunschel, along with rest of the Grebien administration, felt the sting early last year when Pawtucket's bond rating was dropped to BBB-minus with a negative outlook by Fitch investor services. Yet, he noted that after various measures were taken, including utilizing cash reserves, the administration doing lay-offs and consolidations, and school officials whittling down their budget shortfall by more than $6 million, Fitch responded by removing the “minus” rating and changing the outlook to “stable.”
On the topic of pensions that are on everyone's mind these days, Wunschel noted that the city's police and fire pensions had been underfunded in past years, as they have in many other local municipalities. However, he said $5 million that became available through the maturity of the synchronization bond was put towards the police and fire contribution plans as another move that will help the city financially.
Wunschel said he had seriously contemplated retiring when Doyle opted to not seek re-election. However, he said that Grebien then asked him to stay on and help his new administration. “I considered it an honor. I do think I helped, and I think he learned a lot as well,” he said.
Wunschel said the city should be in good hands with his replacement, Joanna L'Heureux, who has worked under him previously and who he suggested for the position. He has agreed to stay on for 75 additional days once she is hired to assist in the transition.
After that, Wunschel said he just plans to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife, Cheryl, his adult son and daughter, and two grandchildren with another one on the way. When he's not crunching numbers and perusing spreadsheets, he said he just likes to putter around the house. “I'm a handyman type of person,” he said. “I'm always doing something.”
Wunschel said that he also would like to plan some trips. “I'd love to go on a cruise again. We went on one years ago and I thought it was nice.” He added, chuckling, “My wife will read this now!”


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