The majority of his career has been spent on Wall Street, but Michael Handler said he always had a penchant for public service.
Handler has been volunteering as an emergency medical technician since 1987, and currently serves as New Canaan's director of emergency management. If the Board of Representatives approves his contract next month, Handler will become Stamford's next director of administration.
"Having had a very fulfilling career on Wall Street, I worked with some of the brightest and very talented people," Handler said during an interview in his new office Thursday. "But I always had a bent toward public service."
Mayor Michael Pavia appointed Handler as the city's top financial officer in late June, filling a position that had been vacant since former administration director Fred Flynn stepped down in January. Handler has a MBA in finance from Columbia University and worked as a portfolio manager for SAC Capital Advisors and Jefferies & Co. before leaving Wall Street in 2008 to spend more time with his two young daughters.
"He's the kind of person that if you had a think tank and you needed a chairman of the think tank, he would be it," Pavia said Friday. "He's very analytical, he's able to sort through issues and problems and come to the right conclusions."
Pavia's administration lost three of its four directors late last year, leaving Director of Operations Ernie Orgera as the only original cabinet member still with the city.
Since January, Pavia has appointed former New York firefighter Ted Jankowski as the city's new director of public safety, health and welfare and local attorney Joe Capalbo as the new head of legal affairs. Handler's hiring fills the final cabinet vacancy.
"Now we really have a complete infield," Pavia said.
Handler met Pavia through former public safety director Bobby Valentine, whom Handler assisted with work involving Stamford's volunteer fire companies, Pavia said. The new director of administration also accompanied Pavia as his public safety expert on a November trip to Lima, Stamford's Peruvian sister city.
"I've grown quite fond of the mayor," Handler said. "I think we share similar visions. This is not a job that I was looking for, but it was a job I jumped at the second he asked me if I would consider it. I respect the mayor incredibly and I think the people he surrounds himself with are top notch."
Cabinet level positions are appointed by the mayor and subject to approval by the Board of Representatives. Pavia said he looked at about five candidates before offering Handler the job, which pays an annual salary of $129,703.
Handler said he plans to oversee the city's finances without micromanaging employees in the Department of Administration.
"My goal is to bring in all those smart, experienced minds into a workable environment so we can get things done together," he said. "It's not going to be one person dictating how the city is going to run its finances, it's going to be getting the best advice and coming to a consensus on what we think is going to be the right direction for the city."
Pavia said he wants Handler to work on "big picture" issues, such as maintaining the city's AA1/AAA bond rating and monitoring Stamford's overall financial and economic health.
"Michael recognizes as I do that there are people in administration such as (Controller) David Yanik and (Office of Policy and Management Director) Pete Privitera and (Accountant) Karen Vitale who really know and understand the intricacies of running the financial components of the city," Pavia said. "He's not going to delve into that, he's going to stay above it and allow those people to continue to do what they do best."
Handler said he plans to keep a close eye on Stamford's upcoming property revaluation. The tax assessor's office has completed about 60 percent of its appraisal work, and the mayor's administration will soon need to decide whether to phase-in the reassessed values immediately or wait another year, Handler said.
"The comparison periods are really troubling if you look at 2007 economic times vs. 2012," he said. "I anticipate that it's going to be a challenge for us, whenever the mayor's decision is to phase it in. I think it's going to be more prudent for us to really set strict spending limits in order to avoid a large tax increase."
Handler described himself "as conservative an individual as you can get in terms of fiscal responsibility." He said his department will need to find savings in the city's budget to mitigate the tax impact of the revaluation and police overtime costs.
"I can tell you that the residential tax is not going to go down as a result of revaluation," Handler said. "How much is hard to know at this point. We can cut spending. There is not an area that's not being looked at. No one's safe."
Handler also said some areas in the city's Department of Administration, such as the accounting and controller's offices, need more staffing support.
"The quality of people is tremendous but the quantity of people is not," he said. "We are definitely understaffed. I think we could definitely use additional help right now; our entire focus is year-end and the audit that's going on."
Handler said he plans to monitor Smith House and the Water Pollution Control Authority, which have struggled in recent years with management and financial issues. On Thursday, new Smith House Executive Director Bob Mislow told the Board of Finance he believes the city-run nursing home ended fiscal year 2011-12 with a $2.4 million revenue loss.
"There's a very strong need for it and a strong need to run it more efficiently and more financially sound," Handler said of Smith House, where he plans to serve on the Board of Directors. "Nonetheless, it's an important business for the city. Whether it needs to be city-owned or not is another story."
When asked whether he supports installing a whistleblower hotline at the Government Center, Handler said he likes the concept but believes anonymity is a critical component for reporting malfeasance. City officials explored the possibility of installing an ethics hotline for employee use, but the project stalled after concerns surfaced that information provided using the service could be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I think it's incumbent upon all of us to actually have a formal ethics training program and not letting anything slip through the cracks," Handler said. "I think having a vehicle to report abuse is great. Being able to determine the frivolous ones from the legitimate ones is a time-consuming and expensive proposition and I wouldn't want to see the system in place until we had that worked out."
Board of Finance Chairman Tim Abbazia said he has met Handler and is not concerned that the new administration director does not have municipal finance experience.
"I'm certainly happy and excited that someone of Michael's caliber is being brought onboard," Abbazia said. "His background and his knowledge indicate he's going to improve the financial controls and financial work that's done."
"He brings the right style and temperament to the city, which means he'll take a thoughtful approach, a knowledgeable approach and then take action."
Board of Representatives Fiscal Committee Chairman Jay Fountain said he has met Handler several times and believes he will be a collaborative and open-minded director.
"I think he's smart and will understand the issues, and there's some complex issues confronting him over the next few years," Fountain said. "I feel for him in what he has to deal with but I think he has a good attitude about it, he's somebody who I think will accumulate trust and also somebody who understands the importance of his support staff and the people who are working for him."
Handler, a New Canaan resident, said he still plans to continue volunteering as an EMT and serving as the town's Director of Emergency Management. The position is unpaid.
New Canaan Emergency Management Deputy Director Jack Hennessey said Handler is a dedicated public servant.
"He led the emergency operations center during last fall's surprise snowstorm and Hurricane Irene," Hennessey said. "He worked around the clock for a week in each storm. He's a very hard worker and we are lucky to have him."
Kate.King@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking