MADEIRA BEACH — There are a lot of new faces at City Hall, and they are not costing taxpayers a dime.
They are volunteers who answer the phones, greet visitors at the front desk and soon may be helping out in other city offices.
Elaine Poe, who will sit on the commission dais in March, organized the cadre of 18 volunteers.
It all started in November when City Manager Shane Crawford asked Poe, a leader in the citywide Neighborhood Watch organization, to put a volunteer group together to help out.
Crawford got the idea after visiting a recreation facility in Largo where he was helped by a longtime volunteer.
"She had been there an insane number of years, maybe 20, and it made my experience so enjoyable,'' Crawford said. "I wondered if a volunteer program would work in City Hall."
At the time, the city was understaffed, and Crawford hoped volunteers could help with some of the "more mundane" tasks.
Poe, with her existing group of Neighborhood Watch volunteers, was a natural to help start up the program, he said.
"By December, we were up and running three days a week. By January we were there three full days and two half days. By February we were fully staffed, with backup, five days a week," says Poe.
Now she is trying to match volunteer skills with needs in individual city departments.
Crawford welcomes the help, but does not want his departments to become dependent on volunteers.
One task he may ask volunteers to tackle is organizing the many cardboard boxes and shoe boxes filled with files and plans in the city's newly reconstituted building department.
When Poe takes her place on the City Commission, she plans to turn over the reins of the volunteer group to Jim Black and Pete Trott, two of her volunteers.
"I believe we are making a significant contribution to our city," Black said. "The volunteers are very generous of their time."
Volunteers wear a name tag and identify themselves when they answer up to 100 phone calls a day.
The volunteers are organized in three daily shifts and have a regular schedule with backup volunteers ready to fill in if someone can't make it on a particular day.
Several of the volunteers will even clean windows when they run out of other tasks to do.
"We are constantly asking for more things to do. The more they give us, the more we feel like we are making a difference and giving back," Poe said. "This program has given a lot of our seniors something to look forward to and enjoy. We all love greeting people."
The group meets monthly to share stories, ideas and information about what residents and others are seeking when they come to City Hall.
Beginning in January, much of the volunteers' time involved helping residents apply for their annual parking passes.
"We had to make sure they had the proper documents to prove they live here," said volunteer Barbara Hill.
Hill, 82, is one of the oldest volunteers and says she "absolutely loves the job."
She worked at Franklin Templeton for 25 years until she was laid off in 2009. Widowed, she found sitting at home depressing and said she was eager to begin volunteering.
"It has been a wonderful experience," Hill said. "I feel like I am making a valuable contribution. I am glad the city is giving me this opportunity."
Most of the people she helps, whether in person or on the phone are "nice," but sometimes are very concerned about events happening in the city.
In one phone call taken by Hill, a resident was upset that city workers were taking out parking meters and piling them on a truck.
"He worried that the city was wasting taxpayer money," Hill recalled.
She explained that the city is in the process of installing new digital park and pay systems that will actually save money.
"I also told him the city planned to sell the old meters,'' Hill said. "He was reassured and thanked me."