A 12-year-old boy doesn’t typically dream of becoming an accountant.
And in fact, although Henry Mitzner has spent the last 40 years in the city of Manhattan Beach’s Finance Department, he didn’t dream of crunching numbers.
He dreamed of airplanes. He dreamed of space.
In 1957, 12-year-old Mitzner watched the Soviet Union launch Sputnik into orbit.
He was already an avid reader of Jules Verne’s adventure novels, like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but the Sputnik launch “just turned a light on,” he said.
He spent much of his childhood in the Bronx playing stickball with friends in the streets, but his first love was aerospace.
So after attending the Bronx High School of Science, he studied mechanical engineering at City College of New York and later earned his master’s in aeronautical engineering at New York University. Both schools were then located in the Bronx.
While watching the Rose Bowl in 1968, with spectators in short sleeves basking in the sun, he thought, “What am I doing here?”
He headed west and landed in Los Angeles, securing a job at Lockheed Martin working on the F-104 Starfighter plane.
“We were selling them to Germany, and they were crashing all the time,” he said. In 1971, the aerospace industry “imploded,” he said, and he was laid off.
His father, a butcher, gave him a piece of advice.
“I think you should switch careers,” he told his son. “This is not for you, bouncing around the country, looking for jobs. Become an accountant, and you’ll always have someplace to work.”
After two years in a UCLA extension program, taking classes at night and delivering dentures by day, Mitzner was offered accounting jobs in Glendale and Manhattan Beach in the fall of 1972. He didn’t make the initial cut for the junior accountant position in Manhattan Beach.
But in February 1973, Mitzner got a call from the city — the junior accountant position was open again. He started on March 12, 1973, when the current City Hall was just “a sandpit” and the employees worked in temporary trailers.
Fast-forward 40 years and Mitzner is currently the longest-serving employee and one of only a handful in the city’s history to serve 40 years or more. His duties as the city’s controller include managing cash flow, the audit and the proper accounting of the city’s assets, revenues and expenditures; producing the budget reports; and payroll and utility billing.
Tasks that would bore most after four decades.
But producing a city budget 40 different times “is fun,” Mitzner said.
“It’s like a puzzle you put together. You assemble it,” he said. “Things constantly change — the demands on staff change, reporting to the state and feds. It’s another puzzle for me to figure out.”
Accounting is just about thinking logically, he said.
“You have to organize yourself. Even though my desk is a mess, hopefully my brain is organized,” he said.
A great, classic guy
Stacked on a bookshelf in Mitzner’s office are years and years worth of city budgets, along with piles of books, many of math puzzles.
Mitzner brushes aside talk of retirement. And good thing, because his colleagues won’t let him go easily.
“I cannot imagine doing this job without him,” said Finance Director Bruce Moe, who has worked alongside Mitzner since 1989. “He is a remarkable person. He will be the first one to forego anything that could be personally good for him in favor of what’s best for the community.
“Henry is the most cerebral person I have ever met,” Moe continued. “He is so darn smart. He takes an analysis and goes in-depth to uncover what the real issues and implications are.”
Moe nodded to Mitzner’s role as the “resident philosopher” and his well-known take on the city’s economy compared to the rest of the country: “When it’s good out there, it’s great here. When it’s bad out there, it’s good here.”
“He’s just such a grounded individual who can take these complex issues and sum it up in a manner of a couple sentences that puts everything in perspective,” Moe said.
On a recent weekday, Mitzner sits back in his chair, outfitted in his distinct uniform — short-sleeved button down, tie, khakis and sneakers — and offers up the four things you must have in life: your health, honor, integrity and good name.
“You have those four things, you will be able to handle life if it’s nice and smooth, or if you get kicked in the rear end,” he said.
It’s not just his wisdom that colleagues would miss. It’s the hint of the Bronx still lingering in his voice. His sarcastic humor and clever puns. The little kid still inside of him who walks around City Hall stealing people’s candy.
“When I was running for City Council, informed residents told me, ‘Henry knows everything about the city,’” Councilwoman Amy Howorth said. “He has been great, not just for what he knows, but for his personality. He’s this great, classic guy. Every time I see him, he sings a Broadway show tune to me. I appreciate that there are people who have worked with our city for 40 years and still make it a fun place to be.”
City Manager Dave Carmany said everyone turns to Mitzner for his expertise in budgeting, financial control systems and the revenue forecast, but also for his sense of humor and sports trivia knowledge.
“As most government is dictated by the budget, having a guy like him — one who brings leadership, finesse and spirit to his work — working for the city is invaluable,” he said.
And if you want to find Mitzner, who lives by The Grove, he’s most likely at work, often in his office at night or on weekends. Or he’s on one of his daily walks around town.
A few years ago, Mitzner had knee surgery and couldn’t drive so he checked into a local hotel afterward.
“None of us would come pick him up because we knew he wasn’t supposed to be working. So he walked the mile-plus to City Hall the same day as the knee surgery,” Moe said. “That’s how dedicated the guy is.”
Mitzner said he never regretted moving on from a career in aerospace, although it will always be his first love.
“You can’t think of a better place to work than Manhattan Beach,” he said. “It’s two blocks from the beach, the sun shines, I work with great people. I work for a true professional (Bruce Moe). I am very happy with my existence in Manhattan Beach.”
When asked why the city has kept him around for 40 years, he said, “Because I’ve fooled them all.
“I think I’ve probably found my niche, that’s all. I think when I was growing up, even though I liked airplanes, I was playing with numbers still. I like numbers. It fits my personality.”
Moe said if someone has worked in one place for 40 years, you might think it’s time for them to retire because they’ve grown stale.
“Henry is fresh every day. There’s nothing stale about him,” he said. “He’s not so set in his ways that he can’t take a new perspective.”
Mitzner said if he did ever retire, he would volunteer to come back to the city if they needed him, and he would likely become a volunteer docent at the Natural History Museum.
Mitzner mentions the various surgeries he’s had over the years: heart, knee, hip, foot.
“To come out of all those surgeries, you look at life differently,” he said. “Most important is I’ve got my health and I can do what I want to do. Yeah, I haven’t been to Europe yet. Maybe I’ll get that way. As long as I’m healthy, I’m gonna try to act young.”
Those who work alongside Mitzner say that although he deserves retirement, they can’t imagine the city without him.
“Henry is like one of the columns on the Parthenon,” said Steve Charelian, the city’s revenue services manager. “With Henry not in the city, it would be one big column missing.”