Town Accountant Priscilla Dumka is smiling as she looks forward to retirement
After 18 years working for the Town of Carlisle, Priscilla Dumka is hanging up her calculator and pen (Priscilla never uses pencils) to retire at the end of September. She chuckled when noting how strange it felt to sit down for a Mosquito interview, especially since she has deliberately spent her career trying to stay under the radar and NOT be in the newspaper.
When did you first start working for the Town?
I started working for the Town in 2000 in the Building Department. Bob Koning (Building Commissioner at the time) hired me. I just loved him. About a year into the job, (former Town Clerk) Sarah Andreassen became ill. The Select Board knew that I had an accounting degree so asked me to step in to help. A few years later Sarah passed away and I got the job, so I had a little bit of time to work with her to learn how she did payroll and bills.
How long have you been in Carlisle?
My husband grew up in town. His family bought a home on Fiske Street when he was about four years old, so we now live in the house he grew up in. I grew up in New Hampshire and moved to this area for a job. Truthfully, I actually met him in a bar, but it all worked out and we got married and raised two kids in Carlisle.
An accounting degree was a great degree to have as a mom because I could get small jobs that worked around the school day. Everyone needs numbers done, and that’s what I did until our son was 11 or 12. The jobs were all close by and that worked for us. I guess I’ve had the full Carlisle experience having seen the town as both a resident and an employee.
When did you decide it was time to retire?
I knew about a year ago that it was time to retire. The stress level of the job had escalated, partly due to changes in the finance director/treasurer/collector positions over the last few years. But COVID is the biggest reason. I was put in charge of FEMA money and CARES money, so it was a lot of extra responsibility on top of my own job, which was already full time. It really was a lot to manage.
About a year ago I went to my sister’s house on a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. I usually go there every August to spend time with her. But last year I went and slept and relaxed, and felt the stress leave my body. When I got home and went back to work, I couldn’t sleep at all. I knew then that the stress was too much. I decided then to give my notice, but it is such a big enough job that I wanted to give a year’s notice. [Former Finance Director] Larry Barton had done that, and it felt like the right thing to do.
What are your primary responsibilities as Town Accountant?
When [former Finance Director, Treasurer and Tax Collector] Bonnie Fleck died, [and Dumka became interim Finance Director for several months] I promised myself that people would get paid every two weeks. Paying people and paying bills are the two main responsibilities of the Town Accountant, and everything else comes from those numbers. I don’t work a lot with the Finance Committee or the annual budget. I’ve done those jobs on an interim basis, but my job is more a day-to-day paying people and bills kind of position. Over the years, though, the job has really grown. There’s a lot more of it, more to it. There’s more questions, more grants, more personnel, more bills.
When I started, I basically took Sarah’s chart of accounts and copied how she managed it. One of our auditors at the time was a consultant and he helped me to get it to work correctly, but I haven’t changed much since it still works well. Technology has changed over time, but the Town would have to invest some money into the accounting system to bring it completely up to date. I think that more of my tasks could probably go digital, but in my opinion, source documents that come on paper are hard to miss or lose. If a bill comes by email, it’s easy to miss it. But if a bill lands as a piece of paper on my desk, it’s hard to miss. I’m old school in that way. It has worked for me, but who knows where it will go from here.
Finance Clerk Nancy Mullane has been a great help to me. I always say that she is my hands. In fact, I had carpal tunnel at one point and she really WAS my hands, taking care of the data entry that I could not manage.
Kelly Beyer of Westford was appointed by the Select Board in June to replace Priscilla. Beyer worked at Melanson CPAs in Merrimack, New Hampshire, a municipal audit firm where she audited a number of Massachusetts cities, towns and regional school districts. She is familiar with both town-side and school district reporting, as well as general ledger reporting, debt servicing, cash and receivable balancing, budget compliance and various financial policies and procedures.
Priscilla and Kelly have a five-week crossover period before Priscilla retires.
How is the transition going?
Kelly started and she is wonderful. She was an auditor, and it’s interesting because she sees the work from a different point of view. I definitely wanted a transition. A week or two was not going to be enough, but I think five weeks will be ample, and she’s learning really fast. We’re basically doing my work every day—paying people and paying the bills so she can learn the ropes. On her first day, we talked non-stop, and at 3 p.m. I just couldn’t talk anymore! The next day I told her we would have to tackle the transition a little differently, so I suggested that we just do the work, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.
Every day I find something else to show her. There’s no manual for the job, but I do have a list of reports that are due between now and the end of the year, so we’ve been tackling those so she knows what is coming up. I can tell that the transition is going really well because I can feel it in my shoulders. I guess I didn’t realize that I was actually retiring until she started. I was stressing about how I was going to teach her—how do you dump 18 years of knowledge onto someone else? Kelly is very receptive and once I explain something, she understands it. I think she will eventually do the job her way, but for now she’s learning the basics. It’s helping me sleep at night.
How do you think the position might change in the future?
While I am teaching Kelly the way I do my job, it is totally her call on how she wants to do it going forward. She has worked on some of my spreadsheets and made changes, but I’m not offended—they look better. I do keep asking her what other towns do in some situations, and she has confirmed that we operate much like other towns. I showed her our payroll change form and she said some towns have a shorter form and others have a much longer one, so we are somewhere in the middle. I am OK with that.
Is there anything that you hope will change in the future?
I think communication can always be better, and it would also be nice if the new accountant could field fewer questions. Perhaps the Town can better train department heads and educate employees and volunteers in accounting processes so they have fewer questions. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Town Accountant should have a private office.
Until two months ago, I worked beside Peggy Wang on the main floor. Being in an open-concept office, it is very hard to have difficult or confidential conversations without a door to close. Tim moved me to the Nickles Room, and it has been wonderful, especially now that I have been helping to train Kelly. I hope the Town can find a private space for her.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
On March 12, 2020, Police Chief John Fisher came over to talk to the department heads in the Clark Room. He told us that Town Hall would be closing the next day and that only essential workers would be required. He looked right at me and said, “yes, that means you.” I knew it. I wasn’t the only person in the room, but he likes to pick on me! The next day was a payroll day and we had to process it. The following Friday, checks had to be prepared. I worked mostly in the office for a while, because trying to bring work home was more difficult than staying in the office. But by January, 2021 I felt like I had taken enough risks, so I started to work from home more, and I stayed home until we fully reopened in June. [Town Clerk] Peggy Wang was also in the office most of the time, and a few others. Town Administrator Tim Goddard was able to purchase new laptops with CARES money, and I got much better about figuring out what documents I needed to work efficiently while remote.
There have been some benefits to being at home, though. I am a member of the Unitarian Church in Littleton and we have been on Zoom since the beginning of COVID. I’ve loved it. I try to wear a nice top with my pajamas on the bottom. They are planning to go back in person this month, but some activities will be hybrid, so I’m glad that I can still stay home occasionally.
Do you have a memorable moment from your years working for the Town?
My strongest memory is from 9/11. I’m sure everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. I was working for Bob [Koning], and Linda Fantasia brought in a TV so we could all watch the news. All of a sudden Bob walked away and just sat at his desk and was silent the rest of the day. The next day I asked him about it, and he said that he knew what was going to happen—he didn’t need to see it happen. As Fire Chief, he knew what was coming.
What do you think is the most important thing you have brought to your job?
One of the things I’m most proud of is that people can confide in me. During all of the various transitions over the years, I sometimes felt like I was part therapist. People know that I am discreet and can keep a confidence, so they feel comfortable talking with me. The fact that people trust me is invaluable.
What will you miss most about the job, and what are your future plans?
I will definitely miss the people, but I’m tired and it’s time to retire. After I made the decision to retire, I was having a hard time dealing with the idea, but my husband reminded me that I’m just retiring from the Town, not from work entirely. I want to take some time off to relax, and maybe I will go visit my sister for an entire week. But eventually I’ll probably take on some small jobs again, like I did when the kids where young. I can see that happening, but not right away.
I also plan to spend more time with my church. I look forward to having time to have lunch with friends. Once I retire, though, there are two things I definitely will never do again—go to Market Basket on the weekend or drive in the snow. So when it’s snowing from now on, I will wait until Gary [Davis] gets everything taken care of!
My husband is pretty jealous that I am retiring, and I think he will also retire soon. I’m not sure if we will stay in Carlisle forever, but we need more time to think about those kinds of plans. I feel like an open slate right now. Since Kelly started, everyone has told me that I’m smiling more. It really feels good.
We’ll let another Town official have the last word
“One of the best aspects of being a Select Board member is getting to know our Town Hall staff. Pris and I have a weekly “date”—when we sit together and she goes over the bills to be paid, and I sign them on behalf of the Select Board. I listen carefully and am astounded by her knowledge of our town and how it works. She is incredibly thorough and conscientious, and cares deeply about our town. Prisl is also one of the nicest people I know. We will miss her. Thank you Prisl!" Barney Arnold, Chair Carlisle Select Board.