Interim Town Manager Jim Steele Retires

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Steeley-Eyed

Jim Steele became the Interim Town Manager of Fort Myers Beach in early June 2016, intending to help the Town out for a few months. One thing led to another, then another, however, causing his term to last almost exactly one year. With new Town Manager Roger Hernstadt now firmly in place, Jim retired on Thursday, May 25. Before heading back to Indiana, Jim sat down with The Island Sand Paper to review the past 12 months and talk about the future.

“I was on the Audit Committee in early 2016,” Jim relates. “I was pretty familiar with the Town’s finances, so we were reviewing the numbers and something didn’t look right, particularly with stormwater, so I went to the Town Manager at the time to see if he could explain that. The Town already did stormwater at the island’s north end, at Laguna Shores, and was already into Segment 1 of reFRESH Estero Boulevard from the Matanzas Pass Bridge to Lovers Lane, but it did all those big projects with cash. A couple years prior, the Town had a balance of $4.2 million, but now it was $200,000 in debt. He admitted he hadn’t paid any stormwater construction bills since the previous November, and we owed the contractor $3.2 million, with no funding source in place. As I was on the Audit Committee, it was my legal responsibility to report this, which ultimately led Council to dismiss the Town Manager.”

As this was going on, Jim per his usual routine went back to Indiana for the Summer. “I got in six rounds of golf, when I received a telephone call from Mayor Dennis Boback, who said the Town was in a tough bind, and asked if I would come back and help out for a few months, especially with the 2017 budget. Well, I had just returned up north, and I love it there, but I said I would think about it. Next thing I knew, I called the Mayor back and I said I would serve through the new budget by the end of September, to stabilize finances and allow the Town time to find a new full time Town Manager.”

It Made Sense to Stay

By last Fall, however, the next Town Council election was less than six months away, when as many as three of Town Council’s five seats potentially changing hands. “Council member Anita Cereceda approached me and said if Town Council chose a new Town Manager, and if the new Council the following Spring did not like that selection, they would start all over again, and that was a recipe for disaster. She asked if I could stay until after the election, with time for that new Council to select their own person. By then, the weather in Indiana was turning cold and golf season was done, so it made sense to stay.”

While Jim has an amazing professional background, Interim Town Manager was his first real interaction with the general public: “The last year really opened my eyes, including all the meetings and emails and telephone calls. That was much more of a challenge than I anticipated, but I always tried to do what was most important for the Town. Being an interim, I had no agenda other than to leave the Town in better shape than when I began, and I think that worked out OK.”

When asked his biggest hurdle, Jim says, “Wow! I would say blending input from the residents and Council and staff into ultimately what is best for the Town. Financially, it wasn’t that hard, but some of the emotional things and the way people feel are challenging.” As for disappointments, none immediately come to Jim: “I cannot think of any biggies, as everything seemed to work out pretty well; some areas not as good as I would hope, but overall I am happy.”

Impressive & Fantastic

As for the best part, Jim has an immediate answer: “The Town staff are impressive and fantastic! They do so many things, often on their own time, from early in the morning to evenings, weekends, and holidays, that the public never comprehends. They do an amazing job and are very diligent. When you serve the public, it seems you are on the clock all the time, and working with them has been very rewarding.”

With retirement again right around the corner, Jim soon heads back to Indiana. “I have a few chores to do around the house down here, but hopefully I will be teeing it up with my golf buddies in Anderson by Saturday, June 3! With the exception of three short trips to Indiana, I haven’t been in my home for almost a year. I have an 1821 log cabin, and right around this time last year the roof fell in! I patched it well enough to make it through the Winter, but now there are squirrels and raccoons in there, so I have my own little ‘Animal House!’ I will clear those out, replace the roof, and then renovate the bathroom, hallway, and kitchen, so I have a lot to keep me busy. In addition to golf, I kayak and bicycle, and take walks on my 4-1/2 acres, and I miss doing all those things. Most important, I plan to lose the six pounds I put on since beginning to work for the Town last year!”

Jim feels that with new Town Manager Roger Hernstadt in place, Fort Myers Beach is in excellent hands. “Roger is a great man! He has many years of experience, and I can see that in the way he asks questions and makes decisions. He is very knowledgeable, has been there and done that, and has great ideas and will be fantastic for the Town, particularly for the budget that will be more reflective on reality. Roger and I had a wonderful transition month together, sharing a lot of information and files to bring him up to speed. I think Town Council will be very happy with their choice, and Roger knows I am just a phone call away if something should come up.”

Speak Up!

When asked if, knowing everything he knows today, Jim would still accept the Interim Town Manager position, he gives a thoughtful pause, then simply says, “I would!” As for any last piece of advice, Jim wants residents to know that their public comments to Town Council are crucial. “Folks must realize that what they say is hugely important, as so many people who live and visit here have so much passion for Fort Myers Beach, and their ideas often help our government to run more smoothly.” He hopes his final day occurs without incident, “so I can just slide off into the sunset!”

Jim reminds, however, that this is not Goodbye, but So Long For Now: “When it gets too cold up in Indiana, probably around mid-October, I will pack everything up and return, certainly in time for the start of our golf league on the first Sunday in November. I am just looking forward to enjoying life, as I live in two tremendous places – I am so blessed!”

 

Gary Mooney