Over the past 41 years, Karen Harrell said she has worked to protect the long-term financial health for the city of Lake Charles.
Harrell is retiring as the city’s finance director Dec. 31 after serving in that position since 2007. The City Council on Dec. 15 adopted a resolution to appoint Emily McDaniel as the city’s new finance director upon Harrell’s retirement.
Since being hired in 1980 to work for the city’s finance department, Harrell has worked under eight mayors. She became the city’s accounting manager in 1985 and served in that capacity until becoming finance director.
Harrell said a finance director must meet the city’s existing needs, such as capital improvement, and maintaining infrastructure like streets, water and sewer. At the same time, enough funding must be set aside to accommodate growth, expand services and endure any unexpected issues, including hurricanes.
Harrell grew up in Hackberry and had 24 students in her graduating class. Living in a small town offered her opportunities to learn managerial skills she would use later in life, she said.
“For anything to be successful, everyone had to participate,” she said.
Harrell attended McNeese State University and worked at the university’s financial office. After graduating, she went to work for the city’s finance department and never looked back. During her career, she was only one of three city finance directors. Arthur Lee served in the position until his retirement in 1986, and he was followed by Ron Kemerly, who retired in 2007.
“I think that says a lot about how the new administrations have recognized the value of the position and the stability it brings to the city,” she said. “It’s important to have someone who has been here and knows what’s going on.”
Harrell acknowledged how the demands of her job impacted her family. Her two daughters, Falon and Emily, and her son, James, essentially grew up in City Hall, she said.
“I would pick them up after school, and they would do their homework there,” Harrell said. “We spent many weekends there. The girls would act as secretaries, and my son would play basketball in the long hallway of City Hall.”
Harrell said her children were so involved in city government that they knew all the important deadlines, including the end of the fiscal year, as well as due dates for the financial and budget reports. Because the books had to be closed by Oct. 31, she said she was never able to take her children trick-or-treating.
During her career, Harrell said she witnessed how the city endured various ups and downs. She was there for the recession that occurred in the mid-1980s. She saw how the $90 million bond issue approved by voters in 2006 helped fund a host of capital improvement projects, including road extensions, that sparked new development.
Harrell mentioned the millions of dollars spent on expanding water and sewer services to other areas of the city. She said one of the proudest accomplishments is the $18 million spent on revitalizing Lake Charles’ downtown district.
Harrell said former Mayor Randy Roach was “very phenomenal in his leadership” from 2000 to 2017. She said current Mayor Nic Hunter has faced challenges like no other leader in the city. “He has great ideas and is so passionate about the city and where he wants to lead us,” Harrell said. “I think we have an unknown future of what the economy will be after the rebuilding is over. We hope our businesses and residents come back. It’s a really interesting time for the administration as it moves forward to build back better and stronger and show our resilience, as we always have through the years.”
Looking ahead, Harrell said she is excited to spend more time with her children and two grandchildren and move into a new phase of life. She said her time working for the city has been fulfilling.
“What we do at city government is make a difference in the quality of life for Lake Charles residents and visitors,” she said. “We at the finance department are an important part of city government.”