NEW PORT RICHEY — Mayor Bob Consalvo took the call Tuesday morning.
What interim city manager Susan Dillinger told him, he would later say, won't bode well for his city.
Police Chief James Steffens had just submitted his resignation.
"I didn't say anything," Consalvo said of the phone conversation. "It kind of just caught me off guard."
After less than two years as New Port Richey's police chief, Steffens, 44, decided to take a position at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He will serve as the chief forensic investigator, supervising all personnel assigned to the Forensics Services Section.
Consalvo hung up the phone and thought about what Steffens' departure would mean for his city.
He was used to Steffens keeping City Council members abreast of major crime investigations and drug stings. A little over a week ago, they had all received an email from Steffens on the scene of a gruesome murder-suicide. At the last council meeting, citizens had lined up to complain that their cars had been broken into.
On top of that, Consalvo had been working with new developers, and, he said, crime rates aren't going to draw people to the city whose official slogan is "Live. Work. Play."
"It's a bad time for him to be going," Consalvo said. "It's a little frustrating losing two chiefs in a row to the sheriff's department. But it shows that we have good personnel."
Across town, at just about the same time, Sheriff Chris Nocco stood with Steffens in front of a bouquet of microphones and joked with news reporters that bringing Steffens into the agency was like getting a first-round draft pick.
Nocco knew Steffens' work.
Six years before retiring in 2009 as a lieutenant with the Clearwater Police Department, Steffens headed that agency's SWAT team. He joined New Port Richey police in May 2011 as a lieutenant. The next month, Nocco made Steffens commander of the Pasco County SWAT team, a "unified team" of New Port Richey officers and sheriff's deputies.
That October, Steffens was promoted to interim chief, and later chief of the police department, replacing Jeffrey Harrington — who also left for a job with the Sheriff's Office.
Under Steffens' watch, the department handled everything from murder investigations to red-light camera citations to extra patrols at the deteriorating Walden Pond Mobile Home Park. The police department also oversees the city's new animal control unit, which launched in October with one trained field officer and a band of volunteers.
Steffens' last day with New Port Richey police will be March 16. He will replace Charlie May, who will retire next month after 25 years with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, including the past seven as chief forensic investigator. Steffens will make $72,244.90 a year.
Nocco told the Tampa Bay Times that he admired Steffens and wanted him to model the Pasco department after the one he led in Clearwater.
Steffens' "tactical background" had given him an eye for what he would be doing as a forensics investigator, examining schools and other public buildings to give SWAT teams a strategic advantage in potentially dangerous scenarios.
Steffens described his new job as having to "think like a bad guy on a whole different level."
He called the new job "the opportunity of a lifetime." He said he may get better sleep in his new role, knowing that he'll no longer responsible for a whole fleet of officers 24 hours a day.
He will still lead the county's SWAT team and noted his family may not notice much of a shift in his jobs.
"They're used to dad disappearing in the middle of the night to take care of a crisis somewhere," he said.
Consalvo said Steffens' resignation would be the topic of Tuesday night's City Council meeting. Council members will have to discuss what they will do in the meantime and how they will pick a new chief.
"Good leadership over at that police department is what we need right now," the mayor said. "It's not something you can do overnight."
Consalvo said he understands Steffens' decision to leave. He said he knows the new position will be a chance for Steffens to grow professionally.
He said he enjoyed having Steffens as a chief, referring to him as "dedicated" and "smart."
Consalvo recalled a story he read in the Times in October, a profile about Steffens and his search to find his birth mother.
"Reading that article about his life and how he was brought up and his compassion for people made me feel a little bit different about him," Consalvo said. "He wasn't just a cop."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.