Sunday January 6, 2013

LENOX -- At 6 feet, 10 inches tall, the town’s new finance director and town accountant -- a former basketball star at Holy Cross in Worcester -- towers over his colleagues.

But during a conversation on his second day of work last week, Charlie Browne, a certified public accountant, comes off as a gentle giant as he ascends what he acknowledged is a steep learning curve in his role as the town’s first full-fledged finance director.

Browne, who served as fiscal manager of the Center for EcoTechnology for the past 13 years, was hired as part of a Town Hall reorganization to ensure that financial accounting was running smoothly following an adverse audit presented to the Select Board last March.

During the 1990s, Browne worked for an independent auditing firm based in North Adams checking the books in area communities, including Lenox.

"It’s not uncharted territory here," Browne said. "But there’s a steep learning curve and it’s a challenge, which is why I took the job. I’m excited."

He emphasized that he approves of the informal use of his name, synonymous with the hapless, yet beloved, "Peanuts" comic character.

"I go by Charlie, I’m used to it," he said. "Charles sounds too formal."

Browne, 54, grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., but has lived and worked in the Berkshires for more than 20 years. His wife, Lynn Browne, a county native, is the town accountant in Lee. The couple, residing in Pittsfield, met as students at Holy Cross.

Explaining his designation as the town’s finance director and accountant, Browne said "it gives me a little more responsibility in getting the areas working together and getting the reconciliations happening. It gives me a little more leverage there."

Browne’s appointment was presented by Town Manager Gregory Federspiel and was enthusiastically approved by the Select Board last month. At that meeting, Federspiel touted Browne’s outstanding people skills.

An audit presented to the Selectmen last March by the one of the state’s leading municipal auditing firms, Scanlon and Associates based in South Deerfield, had identified a "significant deficiency in internal controls" because of six-month delays in reconciling cash accounts by a previous accountant, who resigned.

The report presented by Thomas J. Scanlon Jr. emphasized that no funds were missing or misused. Federspiel said the problems were corrected swiftly.

Browne succeeds Town Accountant Marge Pero, who departed last month for a position at Lee Bank in the mortgage banking field that she described as her "first love" professionally. Browne and Pero met briefly this past week to compare notes.

"I’m overwhelmed by how friendly and helpful everyone is here," said Browne.

"The major challenge will be getting everything in alignment, getting the flow going and all the cylinders going," he added. "I really believe in a team approach, and we have a great team in place here. It’s just coordinating that, having things on schedule and reconciled."

Asked whether the town’s books are currently up to date and reconciled, Browne responded affirmatively: "As far as I know." He plans to work closely with Federspiel -- "he’s my superior, the one I report to," he said.

Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler has described Browne as a "very qualified candidate who brings to this position a CPA license which would work into an overall plan for a financial restructuring of Town Hall."

Within two to three years, Browne said, he expects to become a certified government accountant after he passes a two-part exam.

"I’m eager and I’m trying to soak up everything I can," he added.

Acknowledging his imposing height, Browne said, laughing: "I like to think of myself as a gentle giant, as long as we get things reconciled."