ZEPHYRHILLS — Jim Drumm drives around the city like a well-versed tour guide, pointing out city properties and the stories behind them, and notes some of the town's finer attributes.
Zephyr Park: A nice place to walk and chat with a stranger. Downtown: In good shape while maintaining pieces of the city's past. Zephyrhills Municipal Airport: Great potential for growth.
Not bad for the new city manager who came to the community less than two months ago.
He's a pro, colleagues say.
In fact, former council member Tim Urban, whose last day was July 1, said he counted participating in Drumm's hiring as one of his biggest accomplishments on council.
"Mr. Drumm is going to be a fantastic city manager who will take the city of Zephyrhills to the next level," he said.
Drumm, 48, was hired in May, replacing longtime manager Steve Spina, who had 15 years at the helm.
Drumm's first day at City Hall was May 19, and for a few weeks Spina showed him the ropes until his own departure June 15.
Like Spina, Drumm likes to see what's going on for himself, meeting city employees, taking notes about a street sign that could be replaced, or a fire hydrant that could use some sprucing up, just like he did when he ran High Springs, a city of 4,700 people just northwest of Gainesville. He's enjoyed meeting residents along the way.
"It won't be long before he'll become one of them," said Auburndale city manager Robert Green, who took his post a couple of years after Drumm was hired as assistant city manager there. "Jim's out in the community. He's not one to find sitting behind a desk. I think that will play real well in Zephyrhills."
Drumm is excited to find a home and move his wife, Dawne, a surgical technician, and 2-year-old son, Kiernan, to the city and start their new life.
Drumm first became interested in local government during a civics class in the ninth grade at Dennison Junior High School in Winter Haven, and continued that passion, earning a political science degree from the University of Florida and a master's degree in public administration from the University of South Florida in 1988, working along the way for Hernando County and for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
In 1989, at the age of 26, he listened to his mother — albeit skeptically — and applied for the assistant city manager job in Auburndale.
"Just humor me and put your name in," his mother told him. "And if you don't get it, oh well."
He got it.
Since then, he has served as city manager of Lake Alfred, a Polk County city of 4,600, and High Springs.
He left the latter post in October, after six years of service, after the city commission there voted to terminate him for what he cites as "philosophical differences." He negotiated a resignation before the commission's final vote.
Since Drumm's first solo day on the job June 16, he's been settling into Zephyrhills and has already made some subtle changes around City Hall. For one, the walls on Spina's old office are no longer white. Instead, Drumm painted the walls yellow – "banana pudding," it's called – creating a more cheerful atmosphere.
Drumm is also mulling some more substantial changes, suggesting revisions to policies that have been untouched for years.
During his first regular council meeting without Spina on June 27, he recommended that the City Council consider changing the format of a meeting agenda to be more in line with what other cities are doing, and less cumbersome than a system that follows more along the lines of county government.
The Council agreed to try it and to test Drumm's proposed formats for the next few months before settling on one agenda style in the fall. The policy change doesn't move buildings, but Drumm thinks it will make meetings run more efficiently.
He is also working with finance director Stacie Poppell to reorganize the budget format. "I think it can be put together better so the council and the public can read it better," Drumm said.
But those are behind-the-scenes changes.
His first real challenge is balancing a troubled budget. For months, city staff has projected an $800,000 to $1 million shortfall; but now that firmer numbers are coming in, Drumm said recently, it could be closer to $500,000 to $800,000.
"The early numbers are not as bad as we had anticipated but I'm a little leery to say that because the numbers are not all in yet," he said, adding that the loss in property tax revenue wasn't as much as expected. "I don't want to be too optimistic yet. It's still early."
Drumm said he looks forward to the challenge of working on projects like the restructuring of U.S. 301, which will reshape the city's business district.
"It really needs to be a community conversation, and come up with a master plan for that district," he said, adding that blocks away from historic properties it could potentially become a more modern, pedestrian-friendly area.
Driving around the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, he points out the new fencing and talks about the city's plans to create a new airport master plan, build a new terminal and do some renovations.
Drumm said he would also like to fill in the pockets of what he calls the city's "Swiss cheese boundaries" by seeking annexation possibilities "to clean up the boundaries" and provide the expected services in what has become an urban area.
He's enthusiastic about the city's future but is also fascinated with its history.
Cruising through the city's historic district, he says when working as an assistant city manager in Auburndale – a Polk County city with about 13,000 residents, similar in size to Zephyrhills – he became the city historian and wrote grants to preserve pieces of the city's past, as well as acting as a coordinator to the Community Redevelopment Agency.
"One of the things that was Jim's real strong point was his appreciation of history," said Green, his former boss, noting Drumm created several initiatives that are still in place.
Here, Drumm wants to encourage more community involvement and hopes to one day start a citizen's academy, a free program to teach residents about city government.
"Instead of saying, 'I'm a customer and the government has got to serve me,' come out and get involved as a community," he said.
While he plans to make improvements, Drumm said he doesn't want to take anything away from what the city means to residents.
"I know Zephyrhills has great traditions and I want to grow on that," he said, after parking a city SUV outside the library adjacent to City Hall. "I want to make sure we grow but so we don't lose that small-town spirit."