Spokane Journal of Business

Seachange at Spokane’s City Hall

CFO Cooley to retire around turn of the year

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-—Kevin Blocker
City of Spokane CFO Gavin Cooley has been with the city for 16 years, through five mayors.

City of Spokane officials and its chief financial officer, Gavin Cooley, have some things to consider in the coming months. 

Cooley, 61, will think about what to do after he retires at late this year or early in 2020, and city leaders will try to figure out who will replace the only CFO Spokane has ever known.

Cooley’s retirement will come at roughly the same time a new mayor and new city council president take office, meaning three of the most influential positions at City Hall will be filled with by new people in the early days of 2020. 

But Cooley, who has served beside five mayors during his 16-year tenure, just might leave the biggest shoes to fill. 

“What we’ve had in Gavin is someone who is a huge fan of Spokane,” says Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who serves as chairwoman the city’s Finance and Administration Committee.

Describing Cooley as a forward thinker who has been a tremendous asset to the city, Mumm says, “He’s very creative at working to create programs and put systems in place to carry forward for the future.”

Dave Black, CEO of Spokane-based NAI Black commercial real estate brokerage and a longtime friend to Cooley, says he will be hard to replace. Black called Cooley “super savvy” in his ability to know when to sell and refinance bonds at the municipal level.

“He’s been able to help the city get more dollars to do more things in ways that don’t have an adverse effect on taxpayers,” Black says. “It can be hard to find people like him in the public sector, because with his skills, he could’ve gone into private life and built even more net worth. He’s to be commended for his commitment to serving the public and doing what he thinks is best for Spokane.”

Much has changed during Cooley’s tenure. He accepted the CFO position in early 2003. In 2002, citywide expenditures stood at $263 million. At the end of last year, they had reached $500 million. In 2002, the city had 2,190 employees and by the end of last year, that figure stood at 2,225.

“What that suggests is that we’ve managed to increase productivity with almost the same number of employees,” he says.

Spokane currently has a AA credit rating from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s and is close to an AA+ rating, according to Cooley. When he started, it had a triple-B rating, which is one notch off of junk status.  

Cooley certainly didn’t see himself spending the rest of his professional career in his current job when he accepted it. He originally wasn’t even supposed to be hired for it.

Cooley was the No. 2-ranked candidate from a pool of 50 applicants after the position posted.

“The top-ranked candidate was some guy from the West Side who ended up not taking the job,” he says.

After getting hired, Cooley thought he’d spend two, maybe three years at the city.

“It sounded like a really fun gig to come in and do some things and then move on to a real job outside of government,” he says. “John Powers came in as the first strong mayor (in 2000). Our initial efforts were to try and get government doing things differently than was previously done. From the moment I started, I’ve loved this job.”

Now he’s stepping down with the city experiencing an economic renaissance not seen since the days of Expo ’74.

Born and raised here, Cooley, 61, says he’s pleased to see his hometown humming the way it did at the time of the World’s Fair. He also urged the community and future leaders in city government to avoid the miscues of post Expo ’74.

“None of what has happened in the last eight years is by accident,” Cooley says. “I think city staff, myself included, learned from past mistakes and our mistakes.”

He cites the example of city leadership’s decision to reduce general fund staff by 10%, 152 positions, in 2004 as one of those blunders.

“Looking back on it, it was really bad management. Short of a cataclysm, which we definitely didn’t have, those layoffs never should’ve happened,” Cooley says.

Cooley says it’s often a familiar refrain to hear public officials lament things they allege are beyond their control. Budget shortfalls, bad roads, and a polluted Spokane River are an accepted part of life.

 “The truth is, all those things were our fault,” Cooley says.

With a soon-to-be new mayor, recent retirements and pending ones in key positions, turnover is taking place at City Hall.

“A lot of us who have been a part of recent successes are looking at that and really hopeful that continues,” he says.

Cooley says it’s important for the city’s future leaders to avoid complacency and distance itself from the apathy that he thinks occurred following Expo ’74.

“We had all kind of investment at that time. There was amazing buildout. You had I-90 come through, the international airport came into being,” he says. “Our median household income was on par with the nation. Spokane was cooking, and we had every reason to believe that it would continue right on from that point.”

“But statistically, I can go back and pretty much show from then on, we started to drift off from the national norms for growth and prosperity,” Cooley says.

He says there are differing theories about why that happened, but he ascribes to the belief that many others do in that city leaders became “tired.”

“They stepped back and created a leadership vacuum which led to a lack of vision. It created a malaise that lasted a really long time,” he says.

In the last six years; however, the prosperity that Spokane has experienced marks the first sustained recovery since the early 70’s.

“I would argue that’s not by accident,” he says. “We have to be mindful of what has occurred in the last six to eight years. Do we like what we’ve seen? If we do, then what do we need to do to continue that?”

Says Cooley, “What the city has learned to do in the last eight years is to take risk in a very intelligent way. We took a lot of risk structuring street repairs the way we did; doing levy-lid lifts and scheduling things out many years. The roads aren’t perfect yet, but the biggest complaint I hear now from people is road construction. That’s a great problem to have.”

Cooley has served under five mayors. He took the job in the final year of the term of Spokane’s first strong mayor, John Powers. Jim West was mayor from 2003 to 2005, and Dennis Hession followed for the next two years following West’s recall. Mary Verner defeated Hession and held office from 2007 to 2011, and David Condon has followed for two terms.

“I’ve never had a mayor not allow me to do what I naturally do, which is to lay everything out and collaborate,” he says.

Cooley graduated from Gonzaga Prep High School in 1977 and later earned his undergraduate degree from Eastern Washington University. He also attended Spokane Falls Community College and had undergraduate stops at California State University in Long Beach and the University of Washington.

“I was studying anthropology at the U of W, suddenly had a kid on the way and figured I had to earn a living so I turned into an accountant,” he says.

After graduating from EWU, he returned to Seattle and went to work for the Price Waterhouse accounting firm in 1984 and then later for the Cooper’s & Lybrand firm before the two companies eventually merged and formed PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Before taking his current position with the city, Cooley served as CFO for R.J. Martin Mortgage Co. and North Coast Life Insurance Co.

Though he hasn’t set an official retirement date, his first order of duty in retirement is to complete the 500-mile walk on the El Camino de Santiago trail with his wife, Katie. The trail extends through four provinces across Northern Spain.

An avid mountain biker, he says he’s recently developed love for white water standup paddle boarding.

“I’m looking forward to hitting reset and then seeing what’s next,” he says.

Cooley says he’s confident his successor will do his or her part to help keep Spokane’s momentum flowing.

“Institutional memory in this position is really important,” he says. “The good news is I’m not the only one in town who has it.”

He says that from the time he started, he’s reached out to other staff—current or retired—for a perspective. 

“I’m more than willing to do the same for the next CFO,” he says.

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