By all accounts, Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight has helped put Covington’s financial house back in better order than her predecessor, but the question before the Covington City Council is whether she’s ready to take on the much bigger challenge of city manager.
Knight, 44, is a lifelong resident of Covington and has worked in a variety of financial positions since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from North Georgia College (which just recently became The University of North Georgia) in 1990.
She is a certified public accountant and also is a licensed insurance agent for property and casualty insurance.
She was hired in 1992 as a financial analyst at Bel-Tronics, where she created projections for sales numbers as well as the number of items that would be returned to help predict the company’s financial future. She said her analytic experience, as opposed to pure number crunching, was a valuable skill.
In 1998, she was hired by Briscoe & Briscoe in Covington to be a staff accountant and work on individual tax returns as well as audits for governments and corporations.
Knight also worked as a controller for two local companies, Kelly Products and Glenn Parker Electrical Contractors, where she said she ensured the finances of the company were run as effectively as possible. She handled payroll, payments to vendors, deposits, keeping the financial books and preparing financial documents.
During part of that time, she also worked part time at the business that she and her husband Scott, owned and operated: Knight and Tabb Insurance Agency. In 2004, she began working there full time.
As co-owners, the Knights oversaw all operations, including a staff of two additional employees. Knight handled customer service inquiries, handled all accounting for the business and was an insurance agent herself, working with insurance carriers.
"Having owned and operated my own business, I know it’s extremely challenging in any economy, and knowing that puts a whole different perspective on you in any line of work," Knight told The News in a sit-down interview. "When you’re the one running the business, knowing you make or break it, it gives you an extra determination and work ethic... I feel I carry with me wherever I go."
Experience with the city
Knight was hired as the city’s temporary finance director in March 2009; she was hired on short notice to help end out the fiscal year — Covington’s budget year runs from July 1 to June 30 — and prepare the next year’s budget.
She later became the full-time finance director and during her time at the city, her responsibilities have grown and she now oversees 21 employees across four city departments: accounting, billing and meter readers, customer service, and purchasing and warehouse.
In some cases, those departments have a middle manager or supervisor, while in other cases, Knight is the direct supervisor for the department, she said.
One of Knight’s main responsibilities is preparing Covington’s annual budget, which is $124 million for the current fiscal year. Knight prepares the budget by working closely with individual department heads as well as the city manager, and that’s one of the reasons she believes she’s a good fit for the job.
"Having worked so closely with the former city manager and having, I believe, obtained a thorough knowledge of the current operation of the city, that’s why I believe I’m a good fit for the city manager position," Knight said. "A couple of other things I think are very important in a city manager are continuity and accountability. Obviously, the continuity comes from the fact I’m there, I have worked beside the current city manager, been involved with a larger majority of the aspects of the city. If my hand is in the budget, then I pretty much know the financial aspects that are going on around the city."
As far as the accountability side, Knight said that, for accountants in particular, accountability is incredibly important because if they get something wrong on the financial side, it can cause major problems.
Though she doesn’t have direct expertise managing utility systems — electric, gas, water, sewer — she does work closely with each department, as well as the consultants who help with utility buying and pricing decisions, such as the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, from which Covington buys its electricity and gas that is then sold to the public.
From her time at the city, she listed her top accomplishments as:
• Producing three clean financial audits in a row, with no findings of non-compliance
• Helping lead the process to upgrade the city’s billing system to upgrade that process
• Researching and helping implement a new deposit structure for the city’s utility customers when they first hook up to the city’s system
• Implementing more efficient and productive procedures in the departments she oversees.
Councilwoman Ocie Franklin said last week that she was concerned that the two internal candidates didn’t have much customer service experience, but Knight said in her Wednesday interview that she has handled a lot of customer service cases as finance director.
Knight said she meets with customers almost daily about billing or utility account issues, and handles occasional questions about tap fees, stormwater and other issues. Since she also oversees the customer service department, she is responsible for managing those employees as well as filling in herself on occasion if short-staffed. She also handled customer service when she worked full time at her insurance agency.
Based on conversations, the three city councilmen and mayor seem to be placing a lot of importance on the ability of the city manager to be the spokesperson of the city and to present themselves and the city well when dealing with prospective industries looking to locate to the area.
Knight said she has seen how former city manager Steve Horton handled economic development situations and has learned from him.
She said she also has a lot of experience presenting before the council and public and leading internal meetings. In addition, she said her financial experience would help her in being able to understand the financial effect of economic development deals.
Some members of the public have also questioned whether Knight is a good choice since she technically lives just across the Walton County border. Covington does not require its city manager to live in the city or county limit; Knight has an Oxford address and said she can get to work in around 15 minutes on a normal day.
No conflict of interest
Finally, some people have questioned whether Knight and Councilman Chris Smith have a close friendship. Knight said her daughter and Smith’s daughter are best friends and the two families have done activities together on occasion, including two trips; however, Knight said the two do not socialize on a regular basis.
Such a relationship does not constitute any conflict of interest for Smith when voting; as several candidates and council members have pointed out, many lifelong Covington residents know each other in various ways because the city is fairly small.
Jim Mercer, whose consulting firm The Mercer Group handled the city manager hiring search for Covington, said Knight had pros and cons based on her background.
He said her experience in the private sector and as a CPA was good and her experience and capability handling finances was important; however, she does not hold a master’s degree, which is a preferred qualification for candidates.
She also doesn’t have much experience with the city having worked there for only four years, but Mercer said that’s both good and bad. It’s good because she won’t be overly influenced by the traditions of the city and she can still have a fresh perspective about how to do things, but it’s bad for the same reason, in that her history of the city is limited. He said she could have a steep learning curve.
Knight said although she doesn’t have a master’s degree, she is required to take 80 annual hours of training to maintain her CPA license, while master’s degree recipients don’t have to have any annual continuing education.
Knight also serves as the deputy city clerk and is working to become an official certified municipal clerk.
Knight has one daughter Meghann, 18.