Grosse Pointe Shores finance officer closes the books on long career

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 20, 2020

 Grosse Pointe Shores Finance Officer/Treasurer Rhonda Ricketts — who’s retiring after more than  33 years with the city — stands on the steps of City Hall.

Grosse Pointe Shores Finance Officer/Treasurer Rhonda Ricketts — who’s retiring after more than 33 years with the city — stands on the steps of City Hall.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — As Grosse Pointe Shores’ finance officer and treasurer, Rhonda Ricketts handled everything from budgets and audits to payroll. But while she was hired for her financial skill set, she was also liked and admired by many for doing more than what her job description entailed.

“She did a great job, and she was always available to do extra things for the city,” former Shores City Manager Mark Wollenweber said.

After 33 years and four months of service to the Shores, Ricketts will retire effective Nov. 27. Because of vacation time, her last day in the office was Oct. 21, just a few days before she marks her 60th birthday.

Ricketts, of Chesterfield Township, had gotten a bachelor’s degree in business from Walsh College before taking a job as a bookkeeper for Rochester Hills. She had been working for that city for about five years when a representative from Walsh contacted her about a job opening in Grosse Pointe Shores.

“I wasn’t even familiar with the Grosse Pointe area,” said Ricketts.

She said she wasn’t actively looking for a new job, but after interviewing with then-City Manager Michael Kenyon, Ricketts was offered the position of finance officer. Treasurer was added to her job title in 2009 when the Shores switched from being a village to being a city.

“I’ve been proud of taking care of our taxpayers’ money, being fiscally responsible,” Ricketts said.

Her accomplishments include helping the city to achieve AAA bond rating status — the highest possible. The Shores reached this in December 2015, just months after neighboring Grosse Pointe Farms did the same; the Farms and Shores were then the only two cities in Wayne County to have a AAA bond rating. A better bond rating means lower interest rates to finance major capital projects and expenditures, so having a AAA bond rating saves a municipality money. In the years since then, Ricketts and other city officials have worked hard to maintain AAA status.

In an effort to save the Shores money during the Great Recession, Ricketts and several other longtime administrators retired in 2012 and returned to work for the city on a contractual basis, allowing the city to retain institutional knowledge. They took lower salaries and went on the city’s retiree health care plan.

“She saved (the city) money all the time,” said former City Councilman Bruce Bisballe, who worked closely with Ricketts as chair of the Finance Committee.

Among her many initiatives were finding better and less expensive prescription drug coverage for employees; offering residents the option of emailed water bills, which lowered postal costs; cutting auditing fees in half by switching to a different firm; and negotiating for a reduction in the cost of liability insurance, Bisballe said. He said Ricketts also noticed that a vacant residential lot had come up for tax auction. The city was able to purchase the lot for $15,000 and then turn around and sell it for $200,000.

“She’s one of the sharpest financial people I’ve ever worked with,” Wollenweber said.

Current Shores City Councilman Douglas Kucyk has a business background but discovered that hadn’t prepared him for municipal finances. Appointed to the Finance Committee, Kucyk met with Ricketts before committee and council meetings to learn more.

“I came to find out that government finances were so much different than a business,” Kucyk said. “It’s highly enlightening that I could sit down with (her). … She’s helped me out a bunch, and she’s helped this city out even more.”

Besides finances, Ricketts took on other responsibilities, including organizing an annual car show at Osius Park and holiday collections at City Hall for nonprofits helping people and pets in need. Wollenweber said Ricketts paid for some supplies and prizes for the car show, and refused to let the city reimburse her.

“That’s the kind of commitment she had,” Wollenweber said. “She went the extra mile because she felt the residents deserved that.”

Others echo that.

“She genuinely cares about the city,” Bisballe said. “I’m sorry to see her go. Those kind of employees with loyalty and institutional knowledge are becoming rarer and rarer.”

Ricketts has been recognized by her peers outside of the city, as well. For the last two years, she has received the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada, which recognizes budgets that go above and beyond minimum requirements and serve as a financial plan, an operations guide, a policy document and a vehicle of communication.

According to a letter to the city from the GFOA, this honor “represents a significant achievement by the (governmental) entity. It reflects the commitment of the governing body and staff to meeting the highest principles of governmental budgeting.”

Mayor Ted Kedzierski was among those who applauded the more user-friendly budget reports. He said Ricketts “will truly be missed.”

“We are sad to see Rhonda leave after an illustrious 33-year career with the city,” Kedzierski said by email. “Rhonda was responsible for upgrading our financial reporting, particularly with new GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board) requirements, and preparing a brochure in everyday language which better explains the sources and applications of our cash flow used in developing our budget. With the assistance of the Finance Committee, Rhonda also developed forward-looking budgets and forecasts for planning purposes. We are grateful that Rhonda, after retiring from the city about seven years ago, elected to come back and continue her exemplary work for the city.”

In 2019, out of more than 100 applicants, Ricketts was one of roughly 30 women selected for the Michigan Municipal League’s Women’s Municipal Leadership Program.

Bisballe said he was struck by Ricketts’ “ability to get and give respect to all those she dealt with. She was always a kind and respectful person. … (And) she has tremendous personal strength and integrity.”

Ricketts wasn’t planning on retiring yet, but like other veteran employees who have left recently — including Department of Public Works Director Brett Smith — she felt let down by the actions of several elected officials. Ricketts said it started with the decision by some council members last year to force Wollenweber to retire. Executive Administrative Assistant Laurie Duncan opted to retire Aug. 30, 2019, when she learned Wollenweber was leaving in October 2019. Neither position had been filled at press time.

“We had a great team here,” Ricketts said. “Just the morale here, the residents — everything was wonderful.”

Those departures left a small administrative staff shouldering considerable additional work, as it reduced them from five people to three.

“We’re stressed out,” Ricketts said. “We’re working, working, working. I really feel the majority of the council has not a clue what the administrative staff does.”

That includes coming in voluntarily on weekends and holidays to catch up on work while the office is quiet — something Ricketts said she and other administrative staffers routinely do.

The day before the May 2020 Shores City Council meeting, Ricketts said she learned the council intended to change retiree health care benefits that retirees said had been agreed to contractually, forcing retirees to pay 20% toward their monthly health care premiums and leading to higher co-pays and other increased costs. Retirees have been asking officials to rescind that decision, saying it has cost them undue hardship at a challenging time in the middle of a pandemic.

“From the day I walked through the door, (elected officials) promised retiree health care was going to be covered,” Ricketts said. “That was pretty much the final straw.”

Even so, Ricketts opted to remain on board longer than she was contractually required, in order to work with auditors on the audit of the 2019-20 fiscal year books. She said she “didn’t think it would be fair” to force her replacement to tackle that responsibility.

Ricketts said she plans to relax at first, although she admits she’ll likely return to work closer to home.

“I’m just going to take it day by day,” she said.

An animal lover, she will be spending more time with her dogs. She and her husband, Michael Ricketts, who’s retired, are pet parents to two rescued huskies — Jake, 13, and Sonya, 16.

Ricketts said she’s going to miss her co-workers and “many of the residents,” who have been stopping by in recent weeks to say farewell. She laughingly said she’s even going to miss the auditors, even though “you’re not supposed to like your auditors.”

Throughout her career, Kucyk said, Ricketts has gone “above and beyond” and, despite her skills and accomplishments, she’s “been so humble.”

“In the end, little things add up,” he continued. “We need more people like her.”