He’s about to begin his 10th year as Defiance’s finance director, in the midst of his longest career stop yet, and John Lehner feels right at home here.
City council consented earlier this week to a one-year extension of Lehner’s contract with Mayor Mike McCann, effective Sept. 21. (Contracts with the city’s top officials are offered on a one-year basis after an initial two-year agreement.)
It’s no secret why McCann wants to keep the soft-spoken Lehner — he believes in him and his talents, which are backed by a record of achievement. For the past five years, for example, he and his staff have received an “award with distinction” from the Ohio Auditor’s Office for clean audits.
But none of that would mean much if Lehner hadn’t found Defiance an appealing place for himself and his wife, Michelle, to raise their family since coming here in 2009. (Their son, Jack, and daughter, Linden, are now college students, both having graduated from Defiance High School.)
“We made a commitment to try to keep the kids in Defiance schools until they were done, to say nothing of the fact I have really enjoyed the job,” Lehner explained. “I think the schools have been fine for my kids. It’s been a really good place to raise the family and kids.”
Ohio is home for Lehner — and is one reason he wound up in Defiance — but his early career took him to points east.
A 1982 graduate of Stow High School near Canton in northeast Ohio, Lehner received his undergraduate degree from Ohio State University in 1986 in the parks and recreation field before earning a master’s degree in public administration in 1993 from Kent State University.
Shortly thereafter, he took a job with the State of Rhode Island’s budget office in the state capital (Providence), but moved back to Ohio three years later in 1996 to become finance director in Clyde — a small town in north Central Ohio — where he stayed for eight years.
His next stop (in 2004) was Easton, Md., — southeast of Baltimore on the north end of Chesapeake Bay — serving as Talbot County’s finance director.
Five years later, however, he chose to return to Ohio when his father, William Jr., was diagnosed with cancer, and he wanted to be closer to his mother, Barbara. His dad passed away in 2009, not long after John took his new job in Defiance, while his mother still lives in northeast Ohio.
Since arriving here, Lehner has presided over quite a recovery in the city’s finances.
Like many towns, Defiance was struggling financially in 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession. The downward trend resulted in the city proposing an income tax increase in 2013, a request narrowly approved by voters that November.
As a member of the city’s board of control — the top four officials (administrator, finance director, law director, mayor) in Defiance’s municipal government — Lehner played a role in the campaign. One bulletpoint was a 10-year financial forecast to help explain the need for the money.
As things turned out, city finances made a strong recovery, and would have even without the increase. But the tax hike comfortably allowed the city to hire additional firefighters and police officers — as promised by officials during the campaign.
Halfway through his 10-year forecast, the city’s finances keep trucking along at a strong pace.
As of July, for example, the general fund balance stood at about $3.75 million, solid enough to continue allowing extra money to be put into capital improvements, which has its own budget and dedicated tax as well. And income tax revenues were up by 3.6% in the first half of the year.
“I’ve maintained that (10-year) spreadsheet and go back every year and see where we are, and we are ahead of where we projected,” explained Lehner. “We’ve taken some of that surplus in the general fund to help put $300,000-$400,000 into capital improvements to supplement projects going on there, and we’re still maintaining numbers well above what was projected.”
As a city board of control member, Lehner has a lot of say in municipal government’s policy departures. And he has a unique background well suited for some of them.
Originally, Lehner wanted to be a park ranger, thus his undergraduate work at Ohio State in parks and recreation studies.
“When I was 18 years old I wanted to be a park ranger, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t pan out,” he said, noting that a class in “public budgeting and finance” in his earlier classes “sparked an interest in me,” which explained his master’s degree focus.
That early start helps explain one project he supported last year — construction of a splash park at Bronson Park with private fundraising help.
“I thought it was a great project,” he said. “I have a soft spot for parks, so I think they play an important role in the community.”
Based on his ability to work effectively with two different mayors — he was hired by Democrat Bob Armstrong in 2009 and retained by McCann, a Republican — coupled with the recognition he’s received from the state, things seem to have worked out just fine for Lehner.
He gives credit for some of the latter to his financial staff, which includes seven other employees.
“They are really good,” said Lehner. “... When the auditors show up and are gathering mountains of data it’s all ready to go and somehow it comes out good. The staff has a lot to do with it through the course of the year.”
So what does the future hold for Lehner, age 55?
No one can predict that with certainty of course, but he says he’s content here and “potentially” 10 years or more from retirement.
“I would expect to want to continue to work here,” said Lehner.