Community connection: Finance chief started in tax commissioner's office at 17

Lisa Johnsa took a job stamping books for the tax commissioner's office when she was 17 years old. Now, the county native is Gwinnett's chief financial officer.

For this edition of Community Connection, Johnsa sat down with senior writer Camie Young to talk about her childhood, her family and her years in night school to advance her education.

CY: You are one of the few native Gwinnettians out there. How have you seen the county change?

LJ: It has changed so much since - I won't tell you what year I was born. (laughter) But since the '60s, when I started out here, it was small, rural. To me it was agricultural.

Only a few high schools in the county, only four or five at the time.

CY: Did your family farm?

LJ: Yes, we didn't farm to make a living, but my grandparents did back when they were making a living for themselves, but not my parents. We had a garden and my daddy kept cows and that sort of thing, but as far as farming for a living, we did not.

My father was one of the ones who actually worked for Bona Allen in Buford.

The county has really changed a lot, because when I was growing up, I can recall the construction of (Interstate) 85 going north after it left Suwanee to Hamilton Mill because my family lived next door.

It really has changed. It's a different world.

CY: I know you've moved a little farther north. Are your children experiencing that same kind of change you did?

LJ: I'm actually in the south end of Hall County. Now, my family still lives in the area that I grew up in in Gwinnett.

But the south end of Hall is not, in my opinion, like Gwinnett was when I was a little girl. It has experienced a lot of growth and that sort of thing.

It still is a little more rural than Gwinnett is and still relatively smaller schools, so we enjoy that aspect of it.

Nothing's the same, but I think it's positive changes. When I was young, we had nowhere to shop, we didn't have but one grocery store nearby and now we have access to all those things very close to us. I didn't have that when I was young.

CY: Tell me about your kids.

LJ: I have two boys. My oldest is 15 (Mitch). He should be getting his learner's license but he doesn't seem too interested, so we haven't done that yet. My youngest is 7 (Patrick).

So I have a freshman in high school and a second-grader. I always say I'm way too old for a second-grader. (laughter)

They are as different as night and day. My oldest one is musically inclined, and my youngest one is anything-actively inclined. He likes sports, plays baseball and basketball.

They keep my husband (Bill) and I quite busy.

CY: How did you get into finance?

LJ: It's really quite interesting. I actually came to work for Gwinnett County the year I graduated from high school, way back in 1979.

I graduated in early June and applied for a very lowly job in the tax commissioner's office. At that time, Lamar Wages was the tax commissioner and had been for years and years. We were up on 240 Oak St.

I just wanted a job, so I applied and I got it. I think my annual salary was ... suffice it to say it was way less than $10,000.

I was thrilled to have a job close to home, where I didn't have to drive to Atlanta.

I quickly determined I didn't want to do what I was doing at the time. I was stamping tax digest. Back in the day, everything was very manual and I had a little date stamper. We had these great big old books that had everybody's name that paid property tax bills. My job was to take the receipts and get them in numeric order and then go through and stamp these books. That was my job, all day, every day.

I decided that wasn't really want I wanted to do, so I decided I needed to further my education. So after I worked for the tax commissioner's office a couple of years, I started going to college, going at night.

... I decided I wanted to major in accounting. I got my associate's degree at Gainesville College, working full-time in the tax commissioner's office and going to school at night.

Then about the time I finished that up, there was a major political shift in Gwinnett County. That was 1984, when the Reagan Republicans all came into office and Katherine Sherrington was elected tax commissioner, and Ms. (Lillian) Webb was elected (chairwoman). A lot of the offices changed.

Anyway, when Katherine came into office, her background was accounting. ... For whatever reason, I guess she recognized that accounting ability in me, so she promoted me to a different kind of job.

She started doing a lot of things in the tax commissioner's office that had not previously been done. We modernized a lot of things. We started keeping a ledger, and so I started maintaining those things for the tax commissioner.

That's when I decided I definitely wanted to be a business major and wanted my bachelor's in business administration, and I decided I would major in accounting. It was largely what I was doing and it was Katherine's influence.

So I did that.

CY: Was that a more interesting job?

LJ: By far. A much, much, much more interesting job.

Between that time I had gotten away from stamping books. Before Katherine came into office I had been moved to the front counter and I was actually helping people when they came in to pay their taxes or file their homestead exemption. I think I had to stamp books for two years, and then I advanced a little bit.

When Katherine came in, I really did get to do things that kind of excelled me on my way, helped me to choose my career path.

At the time, Katherine was a great mentor to me. She helped me visualize what I might want to do long-term, because I never really thought about it.

I kind of thought I was just going to come work for the county, make some money. You know how you were at that age. I was just 17 when I came to work for the county. I was a month and a half shy of my 18th birthday, and you don't know what you want to do when you're 17.

After that, when Katherine came along and I did get a much more interesting job, I really liked accounting. I did the budget for the tax commissioner's office, did the tax digest, worked with the finance department a lot with doing the millage rate and revenue projections. I began to have a lot of exposure with finance ....

I finished up my bachelor's degree, majored in accounting and got a bachelor's in business administration from North Georgia College in Dahlonega.

In about '91, an opportunity became available in the finance department for operating budget manager. ...

Having taxes as a background, the largest revenue source at least for our general fund, it was a tremendously good experience for me. ... All of that was really good training for me.

CY: How long did it take you, going through night school?

LJ: I took a little bit of time off between the time I got my associate's degree and my bachelor's degree because I got married.

All in all, it took me seven or eight years. I always took a full load. That was a good experience for me, too, because I think going to college right out of high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I wasn't really focused.

Going at night I was very focused. I did very well academically. I knew what I wanted to do, and I could see the application. The traditional college student didn't get to see that, so I think I'm one of the ones that benefited from being a nontraditional college student.

CY: Do you do the books at home?

LJ: I do, but I'm ashamed to admit I don't do a family budget (laughter).

I keep our bank statements and I do our tax returns, but I am not as disciplined at home as I should be, I guess because I get enough of it at the county.