GULFPORT — When Jim O'Reilly was growing up here, he never dreamed he would someday be the city manager.
Well, it happened.
Last week O'Reilly took the reins of the waterfront city with a population of just over 12,000 and an annual budget of $33 million.
One of his first tasks was to scratch out the word "interim" on his business cards and nameplate in the City Council chambers.
O'Reilly has been interim city manager since September 2008, when he stepped out of his five-year role as director of leisure services and into the role of running the city. He took over for Tom Brobeil, who resigned because of an illness.
O'Reilly said he had filled in for Brobeil during periodic absences so that when Brobeil resigned, he was the obvious candidate.
But there was a snag in bringing him on full time. The charter specifies that the city manager must live in Gulfport.
While O'Reilly, 50, has strong ties to Gulfport — he has spent 46 years either living or working here — he, his wife and daughter moved to Seminole 10 years ago. With their lives established there, they did not want to move back.
It was a stalemate that would go on for a year before City Council members passed an ordinance allowing them to suspend the residency rules when they saw fit.
With that major hurdle cleared, it appeared there would be clear sailing hiring the affable O'Reilly, who had the support of the council.
But a few bumps remained in contract negotiations.
O'Reilly wanted a severance package of four years' salary. He makes $108,000 a year.
The council was split on offering him six months or one year and whether a 3-2 or a 4-1 majority was needed to terminate his contract.
After a heated meeting two weeks ago in which O'Reilly basically pulled himself out of the running, the council reconvened in a special meeting and voted to offer him one year's severance with a 4-1 majority necessary for termination without reason.
O'Reilly accepted that offer.
"I was looking for stability and security," he said.
So what is his first order of business in managing the city's 155 employees?
Naming a police chief.
The candidates are Lt. Howard Coombs, who is serving in that capacity, and Lt. Robert Vincent, who spent four months in the job before Coombs took over. O'Reilly wanted to see how each of them ran the department before making a decision.
"I anticipate the selection process beginning immediately and naming a police chief right after the first of the year," O'Reilly said.
And his biggest challenge?
"The budget. Of course, the budget," he said.
"With the sluggish economy and flat property values, there is still a demand from residents to provide the same level of service," he said. "Government will shrink, but hopefully in a less drastic manner than in other cities. We just have to learn how to do more with less."
Mayor Mike Yakes said O'Reilly was worth the wait.
"Patience is a virtue. This shows that we have the right man for the job,'' he said. "I don't know where we would find a person to come in with his knowledge, skills and abilities. I am more than satisfied with our decision."
Council member Michele King, who had argued for the leaner side of the severance package, said, "I think Jim will make a great city manager. I was voting against the contract, not against the man."