Longtime state budget chief Jim Reardon, who was known for his humor and humanity along with an unparalleled knowledge of Vermont’s finances, died Monday at age 61.
Lawmakers, former governors and colleagues remembered Reardon as a man devoted to public service who brought levity to even the most serious debates about state spending. Reardon died of cardiac arrest, according to his wife.
“Jim really was a master,” Sarah Clarke, his former coworker and the current finance chief for the Agency of Human Services, said Tuesday. “There was nobody like Jim when it came to understanding what it takes to put a budget together and move that most important policy bill from the governor’s office through both sides of the Legislature until it became law.”
Reardon spent three decades working in state government, leading the state’s budgeting process as the commissioner of finance and management for a decade, beginning under Gov. Jim Douglas in 2005 and continuing under Gov. Peter Shumlin until he retired in 2015. Since leaving the state, he has worked for Burlington Electric Department.
As finance commissioner, he shunned a laptop, instead relying on a massive budget book and an adding machine, yellowed from age with clacking keys, that his colleagues called “Big Bird,” longtime colleague Neale Lunderville recalled. On weekends, colleagues said, it wasn’t uncommon for Reardon’s office light to be the only one on and his truck was often the sole vehicle in the parking lot.
His “bedrock knowledge” of the finer points of state finance helped the state weather the Great Recession, Lunderville said, as officials were confronted with making steep cuts to state spending.
While Reardon knew the numbers in the state budget better than anyone, he was not driven by the bottom line. He had a sense of what investments would have an impact.
“None of the budget work was cold, it was never just numbers,” Lunderville said, noting that Reardon cared deeply about ensuring state programs served people well. “It was about taking care of people.”
While he was never afraid to be direct when it was necessary, Reardon was widely known for telling what Lunderville called “gut-busting” stories.
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In 2015, as end-of-session budget negotiations ran into the early hours of the next morning, Reardon’s jokes evoked peals of laughter from a roomful of tired Statehouse-dwellers (but not before telling a lingering reporter the stories were off the record).
The Legislature’s chief fiscal officer Stephen Klein said Reardon’s sense of humor built trust. “His storytelling was an amazing strength and it helped to make things more human and helped to relieve tension,” Klein said Monday.
Reardon led finances at the Agency of Human Services, before he became second-in-command of the Department of Finance and Management during Douglas’s administration. Douglas, a Republican, appointed him to head the department in 2005.
“It was an easy decision to promote Jim, because he knew state government in and out,” Douglas said Tuesday. “Nobody could pull the wool over his eyes.”
When Shumlin, a Democrat, took over the Fifth Floor in 2011, he kept Reardon at the helm of the budget-writing process.
Shumlin praised Reardon’s fiscal prudence Tuesday and said he considered him a friend. While they occasionally did have disagreements — and Reardon wasn’t shy about giving his opinion — Shumlin said Reardon helped ensure his and previous administrations had balanced budgets and paid the bills.
“I would predict that Jim Reardon saved Vermont taxpayers more money from pure logic than any tax cut in the history of Vermont,” Shumlin said.
Gov. Phil Scott also praised Reardon as a “brilliant public servant” Tuesday.
“Through good and difficult economic times, Jim served the people and the state he loved with unmatched dedication and the utmost integrity,” Scott said in a statement. “He was one of a kind and we’ll miss him.”
Lunderville, who worked with Reardon in state government under both the Douglas and Shumlin administrations and later at Burlington Electric, said the party affiliation of the governor was never of much interest to the longtime budget chief.
“For Jim it really didn’t matter who was in the corner office,” Lunderville said. “He knew the power of the budget, and he wanted to make sure that budget worked.”
Colleagues said Reardon left a long-term impact on the executive branch by supporting young coworkers. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said part of Reardon’s legacy is the effort he made to train up the next generation of civil servants.
That includes current leaders within state government like Clarke, chief financial officer of AHS, who Reardon mentored when she began as a budget analyst.
What set Reardon apart, Clarke said, was his ability to be a friend to everyone, whether a janitor, a legislator, or the governor.
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In the Statehouse, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said Reardon was a source of support for lawmakers — including herself — even at times when legislators and the executive branch were at odds.
“He respected that there were multiple steps to that process, and I think he helped us do a good job,” said Johnson, who worked closely with him as a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee.
As a budget writer, Reardon was careful to stash away money for rainy days. Late in the session, when lawmakers and the governor’s office would be circling a final budget agreement, Reardon had a way of finding a pocket of money, Johnson recalled.
He carried that knack for saving money into his job as director of finance for Burlington Electric Department.
BED General Manager Darren Springer, who worked with Reardon in the Shumlin administration, described Reardon as a “hawk” on the utility’s budget, and said customers feel the impact of his scrutiny. BED has not increased rates in years, Springer noted, “and Jim’s been a big part of that.”
Reardon underwent open heart surgery shortly before he announced his retirement.
Outside of work, Reardon served on the boards of Lund, the Vermont Historical Society, PH International, and the Visiting Nurse Association. He was born and grew up in Rutland, and lived with his family in Essex.
His wife, Deborah Reardon, said Tuesday that her husband was committed to trying to make sure people got a fair shake.
“He was very devoted to helping people,” she said, “and he made sure that people were done right by.”