The former Sarasota County Administrator doesn't start till Dec. 11, but he's spent the last five months getting to know the island.
Tom Harmer, county administrator for Sarasota County, is scheduled to begin his move to the office of Longboat Key Town Manager Dec. 11. The town tapped Harmer’s more than 30 years of local government experience in July after Town Manager Dave Bullock’s March retirement announcement.
But Bullock hasn’t retired just yet. He’s scheduled to stay at Town Hall until Jan. 18, to help acquaint his replacement.
The Longboat Observer sat down with Harmer, 59, in his Sarasota office this week to ask him about his new job on Longboat, his plans for leading the town and what he does when he’s not at work.
What appeals to you about working for Longboat Key?
When the Longboat Key opportunity came up, that’s an opportunity that is hard, and for me impossible, to turn down. What a great community. They feel very strongly about who they are and the quality of life on the Key. They regularly will debate things like growth and density, and they’re willing to fund major projects like the undergrounding of the electric — almost $50 million. Much of that’s being funded by the residents themselves. And so you have a community that is willing to invest in themselves and also has a strong opinion about who they are and who they want to be.
What have you been doing to acquaint yourself with the island and its issues?
I’ve attended several community functions on the weekends. I was invited to a condo federation meeting; I went to the Kiwanis Lawn Party (last weekend); I’m speaking at another event this coming weekend. But also over the past five months, I’ve met with all the commissioners prior to them approving my contract, but then I’ve also met with all of the department heads and the town manager, at least once. [We met] to go over active projects, meet them, let them meet me, talk about what the priorities are, talk about what’s going to be going on when I come on board in December and January and February, so I know what the priorities are.
You’re following a sort of living legend in Dave Bullock. How do you plan to fill those shoes?
I do think Dave is leaving in a very positive way — and in this profession, it’s unusual that managers leave in a positive way. So I think we’re both fortunate to leave our organizations in that way. I’ve known Dave for a long time. Those will be hard shoes to fill. In many ways, I think I’m similar to Dave, but in other ways, I’m probably different from Dave. And I don’t even know what all those things are because Dave and I know each other professionally. I think we both recognize the importance of the staff in getting the job done, and making sure that we have a good team in place, and that customer service is important. I’ve been to a couple community meetings where I’ve listened to Dave talk, and he reinforced some of the same things I’ve reinforced, so I’m excited.
What most concerns you about the position and its duties?
I would say concerned? No. Challenges? There will be opportunities and challenges, some of the initiatives are not going to be easy. Undergrounding is a difficult project that’s going to impact every property out there. The one-county discussion is a difficult conversation between Sarasota County, Manatee County and Longboat Key. The Colony project is a major development opportunity out there. Each one of those we’re going to have to, as a staff, be very careful about how we either manage the project, or review the application or process whatever we’re processing, again, to make sure that we’re doing the best we can, and that those things to come before the board (of Town Commissioners), again, they have all the information they need.
Why take the job in the first place?
How can you not? If that job is open, how do you say no? I think the Key is special, the community is special, I think they have high expectations.
There’s a difference when you have 2,300 employees versus the number of employees that Longboat Key has. Here, I have a deputy county administrator, two assistant county administrators and 17 department heads. So I can delegate here.
Out there, I’m going to have to roll up my sleeves, and help make it happen. That really excites me, to be able to go back to my roots of rolling up my sleeves, and be able to be in a discussion with the board at a policy level, but the next day also maybe being out in the field looking at a project myself.
How do you feel about working with Manatee County, in particular on the one-county initiative?
I think either county would be concerned about losing the tax base for a portion of Longboat Key. So that is going to take discussion. Whether it happens or not, it’s a really good discussion to have because there are practical challenges when you have two property appraisers, two supervisors of elections, two sets of ordinances from two different counties, two (emergency operations centers), different tax rates; there’s just so many things there that say it doesn’t make sense. But the fix is a little bit more challenging, so how do you do that? I think it’s going to happen through conversation on the next steps and that, if it’s going to occur, it’s going to occur over time. It’s not something that would happen in the next month, or two or three.
Do you have any plans to take a job after Longboat, or is this the end of the road for you?
I didn’t have any plans to take a job after Sarasota County. But I said, I was asked that question five years ago and I said I hope to finish — this is what I said five years ago when I was appointed here — I hope to finish my career in Sarasota County. And so I still think that’s true. I live in Sarasota County and I’m going to be working in Longboat Key and I hope to finish my career there, for sure. I don’t have the final say to that. The Town Commission has a lot to say about that.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Ha, free time. I bicycle, but my primary hobby is the martial arts. I think it was the Observer that reported on that five years ago. So I work out two to three days a week with a couple of karate clubs. I have sword training on Thursdays.