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Manager's winding path led to county

The rookie sheriff's deputy crept around back. But the killer was watching.

Shots hailed from a bedroom window.

Jerry Calhoun ran for cover, reaching a tree just in time. He drew his .357-caliber Magnum and fired back. Someone shot tear gas into the home and 30 minutes later, the man came out, hands up.

He was arrested for shooting his girlfriend in the head and it was left to Calhoun and a partner to cart him off to jail.

"On the way, he said he had a deputy in his sights but just didn't pull the trigger," Calhoun recalled last week. "I always wondered if it was me."

That was more than 25 years ago in Beckley, W.Va. Recounting the scene recently, Calhoun, who became Port Richey's city manager last month, said it was a turning point in his life.

"It wasn't being afraid for my life, but the situation made me take stock of where I was," he said. "I felt I was wasting my college degree" in accounting.

So in February 1979, Calhoun took a job as a state auditor, launching a long, diverse career in finance. "It's something either you really are comfortable with right off the bat," he explained, "or you hate it."

The same might be said about small city government, where a manager is deeply involved in all facets of the operation, from fielding citizen complaints and deciding sewer budgets, to hiring and firing employees and perhaps the most difficult of all, pleasing elected officials.

Calhoun, a relative newcomer to city management, is confident he can handle it all.

"I feel comfortable here," he said, sitting at the desk formerly occupied by Vince Lupo. Calhoun came to Port Richey from Ronceverte, W.Va., population 1,500, where he had been city manager since October 2001. Here, he will oversee 54 employees and earn $65,000 annually.

Blue-eyed and mild-mannered, Calhoun seems much younger than his 51 years. He doesn't mind that now but his baby face was once an issue. As a deputy, he grew a moustache to seem older. "It didn't fool anyone," he said. The old ladies still told him he was too young to be carrying a gun.

Calhoun strikes a pose decidedly different from his predecessor, who favored gold necklaces and big rings and decorated his office with photos of animals he killed on safari.

Three pictures in silver frames adorn Calhoun's dark wood desk _ those of his wife and her two teenage daughters. When Calhoun talks, he has a habit of brushing dust off his desk and straightening his pen or writing pad.

"I'm a detail-oriented guy," he said.

"A way with people'

Born in Austin, Texas, Calhoun spent his early years in Chicago, where his parents worked for Teletype Corp. Life in the inner-city school system was not kind. "You had to be pretty tough back then," Calhoun said. "I got beat up a lot."

Rural West Virginia seemed more fitting, so Calhoun's parents sent him and his brother Bill to live there with family. By high school, however, Calhoun had returned to the Chicago area. He wrestled and played on the Elgin High football team but saw little action.

"They played me a little bit in practice as a safety." He graduated in 1971. In his senior picture, Calhoun's hair is neatly combed and covers most of his forehead. He's wearing a blazer, striped tie and a slight smile. His eyes look away from the camera, conveying innocence and optimism.

After high school, West Virginia called again and Calhoun enrolled at Morris Harvey College (now University of Charleston). Though he studied accounting, an opening in the Raleigh County Sheriff's Department jogged old memories of becoming a deputy.

"I needed a job," Calhoun said, "so I decided to take it." He was a sniper for the SWAT team. "We had a call one time where a gentleman was holding a young lady against her will in an old abandoned house. But he ended up coming out. I never had to fire."

The incident with the man who killed his girlfriend put an end to Calhoun's short career as a deputy, and he went into finance. After the state auditing job, Calhoun held a similar position with the United Mine Workers of America.

In 1988, he joined the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department in Blountville, Tenn., as director of finance. His longest employment tenure came via his own consulting company, which from 1990 to 1996 provided budget services for small municipalities in West Virginia.

Then a cousin lured Calhoun to St. Petersburg to be assistant finance director for Gift of Life, a nonprofit adoption agency. He worked there until December 1999, when he took a finance job at Vitamin Discount Center.

That stint lasted less than a year. Calhoun said he had a better opportunity to work for Global Polymer Solutions Inc. in Brandon, a company that processed and sold recycled plastic.

The venture had potential, Calhoun said, but he came on board as the market went flat. Soon Calhoun was one of few workers left. He ditched his business clothes for a hard hat, operating giant plastic grinders and a forklift. Suppliers started calling, demanding payment.

"Jerry just handled those people beautifully," company founder Peter Blyth said. "He was able to calm them down and address their problems. He seems to have a way with people."

The company shut down in late 2001.

Changing homes

Calhoun never completely settled in Florida. He flew home regularly to see family and his teenage son, Grant Austin Calhoun. Tampa International Airport became a familiar place, as did a souvenir shop in Airside F. Calhoun always made sure he got in the line with the pretty, dark-haired cashier.

"I'd buy something I could use but nine times out of 10 it wasn't something I would have bought," he said. She made the first move, taking a seat next to him and complaining of a headache. Calhoun got the woman aspirin, then asked her out.

Ligia "Lu" Munoz, 40, moved to the United States in 1996 from Colombia with her daughters, Poliana and Valentina. Calhoun visited her homeland last year and was enchanted. If the political climate toward Americans is better when he retires, Calhoun said, he might move there. If he moves his arm just right, you can see a yellow, blue and red bracelet. It represents solidarity with Colombians, political peace, he explained.

The couple married in December 2001, two months after Calhoun landed the job in Ronceverte, which is situated on the Greenbrier River. Decades ago, the city was a center of life in West Virginia _ a two-newspaper town with rich apple orchards, railroads and mills. But as economic activity shifted elsewhere, Ronceverte declined. Lewisburg, 5 miles north, now is the hub of Greenbrier County.

Much of Calhoun's focus was on reinventing the city as a bedroom community of Lewisburg. He oversaw projects to redevelop streetscapes and worked with state and federal environmental agencies to better promote the river among tourists. Plans were hatched to transform old railroad beds into hiking trails.

Mayor Nancy Murdick said Calhoun's financial expertise allowed the city to prepare budgets in-house, rather than pay a consultant. She said he brought on a computer system that streamlined accounting and used his knowledge of state government to obtain street sweepers, paving machines and snow removal equipment at heavy discount.

"He was exactly what the city needed at the time," Murdick said.

Asked if she had any criticism of Calhoun, Murdick said his biggest problem was trying to do to much. "Sometimes details got lost," the mayor said. That could mean employee reviews were not done on time or salaries were not adjusted.

While Calhoun was mostly happy in Ronceverte, the pay was lacking and there was no formal retirement plan. The $38,000 annual salary, he said, made it hard to support a family. So he began sending out resumes. His was just one of dozens that ended up before Port Richey City Council members after Lupo was fired last year.

Calhoun was not the city's first or even second choice for the job. Two other candidates backed out at the last minute, saying the $70,000 annual salary was not enough. Calhoun took the job for $65,000.

Part of the motivation for seeking more money, the previous candidates said, was the city's politics. Job security was an issue. Calhoun knows the city's past and said his goal is simply to stay out of the politics. "I have a job to do," he said, "and I do that to the best of my ability and within the guidelines the council has set."

While getting acclimated to the new city, its infrastructure and its employees, Calhoun has begun to form an agenda. He has enlisted the Florida League of Cities to hold a workshop so Port Richey can identify potential new revenue sources. He wants to develop a well field, eliminating the need to buy water from neighboring New Port Richey. That idea came from Lupo's administration tenure but had stalled. And he said the city should begin planning for an overhaul of its stormwater collection infrastructure.

For now, Calhoun is living with his wife's family in Tampa. He is looking for a home _ the leading contender is Spring Hill _ and his wife and the girls will move down soon. He said his main interest outside work is his family, though he'd like to get back into stained glass making, a hobby he picked up years ago. He also plans to work toward a master's degree in public administration at the University of South Florida.

As Calhoun discusses his new life, beads of water run down a 44-ounce plastic cup of Diet Coke sitting on a napkin behind him. "I can't see spending a dollar for a bottle when I can get this much for 63 cents," he explained, laughing because he won't drink it all.

"It's the accountant in me."

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