The culture of accounting: How Benton Township’s superintendent gravitated toward financing

Kelli Nelson, the new Benton Township Superintendent, is photographed Oct. 4, 2016. She comes to the job after being township comptroller. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Kelli Nelson, the new Benton Township Superintendent, is photographed Oct. 4, 2016. She comes to the job after being township comptroller. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Things weren’t that much different for Kelli Nelson when she walked into work last Monday.

She sat at the same desk, answered the same phone and spoke to the same people. However, Monday proved to be her first day as Benton Township’s next superintendent. The 32-year-old was first hired to serve as the township’s comptroller in 2009. She was tabbed to replace Elden Piontek – who had a longtime presence in Benton Township.

Nelson, who lives in Lincoln Township and is looking to relocate to Benton Township, lives with her husband and two children.

Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski sat down with Nelson to discuss how she became interested in her profession.

I know you the township has been prepping to have you take over as superintendent, but how it does it feel now that it’s finally here?

We’re just a couple days in, but like you said we had been preparing for the transition. It was different. (Elden’s) usually in on Tuesdays, so it’s weird not having him here. Other than that it’s business as usual.

What would you say are your responsibilities as superintendent?

The superintendent is appointed by the board. My primary responsibilities are implementing the board’s adoptive policies, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the township and helping the board achieve their goals.

When did you first become interested in finances?

I was at Hope College and I had originally declared a major in engineering. It was the summer after my freshman year where I was helping my dad, who is a business owner in Kalamazoo, with some of the bookkeeping. I thought it was interesting and delved into it from there. My sophomore year I changed my major to accounting and went into the public accounting track. I started out with Plante Moran in 2006 and got my CPA shortly after. Benton Township was one of my clients in the time I was there.

So when you were growing up you didn’t have plans for financing?

No. As a child I couldn’t have told you what a CPA was. It wasn’t a childhood dream, but it was something I learned later in life that came natural to me. I was good at it and I enjoyed it.

After college you worked at Plante Moran. What drew you there?

I wanted to work for a regional firm. I wanted to be relatively close to home. I think the deciding factor was the St. Joseph area. That’s where I met my husband.

OK, so how did you start working in Benton Township as a comptroller?

When I was with Plante Moran, I would be out here working on the township’s audit. Elden would say, “I’m getting close to retirement. Do you ever think about transitioning out of public accounting?” A year later, Elden got a little more serious about it and I thought it might be a good time to try municipal accounting. I thought Benton Township would be a good fit.”

What’s your favorite part about working here?

Each day is different. Each day has it’s own set of challenges. But we’ve got a really great team I enjoy working with. It makes it a fun place to work. There’s never really a dull moment around here. We stay really busy.

Do you have any hobbies outside of work?

These days my children tend to be at the forefront of the hobby list. I like spending time with them. I like being outside and riding bikes and going for a run. I’ve been doing spin class more often.

What do you have in store for the township?

We’ve already started on a lot of our big initiatives. We’re still working on our new website. We hope to launch that in a couple of weeks. We are starting are SAW grant, which will be a big undertaking for the township. There’s a lot we had in progress that we are working to wrap up as well.

Heading into municipal accounting, was there anything that was different from what you were doing?

The culture between public accounting and a municipality is different. In public accounting you are checking the financial preparations versus when you work at a municipality you are doing the preparation. We are actually creating the entries.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 10, 2016)
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