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Manager talks Covid, parking law, and island’s underground movement

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer divides his time between the predictable and the unpredictable.

Harmer knew his agenda in the beginning of 2020, included overseeing the undergrounding of all of the island’s utility lines—a $50 million voter-approved project.

The manager also knew he and the town commission would fashion together a plan for the acreage east of Publix destined to be a Town Center. An agreement with the Ringling College of Art and Design fell through to develop the site into a community arts center and since then the town has transformed the land into a passive green space.

Then there was beach renourishment plans, as well as the humdrum of budgetary planning.

But 2020 brought numerous unforeseen challenges Tom Harmer’s way. Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming told him in the first month of the year that he wished to retire. Then Covid-19 gripped the country, the world, and most importantly to Harmer, Longboat Key.

A myriad of protocols, decisions and actions were necessary in short order.

Adding to the drama was the news that the town’s only wastewater line had spewed millions of gallons onto mangroves in west Manatee County last July.

Longboat Key News spoke with Harmer about the eventful year and what he sees on Longboat Key’s metaphorical horizon.

 

Where do we stand with Covid right now?

If you look at the daily numbers, the percent of positives are down. They are down from the late August and early September peak, but it is still too early to tell. The latest heat map shows only one person testing positive for Covid on Longboat Key in the last 14 days. We have taken a very incremental and careful approach to opening the island and I believe that has served us well.

 

Do you expect a busy tourist season and do you think Covid will have either a positive or negative impact on the number of visitors?

We have heard of restrictions in travel from Canada and that could have some impact, but we are seeing an uptick in visitors right now. We just got recognition from Conde Nast that Longboat Key was recognized as a Top-10 island in the United States. I have heard anecdotally that there is a strong market right now in both buying and selling right now on the key.

 

What was the hardest part of your job over the past year?

I just make sure we keep charging ahead. Of course the wastewater leak was not planned and it did take considerable time and effort to address. The repair went smoothly but there was misinformation out there that confused residents. The Covid issue was an extremely unusual emergency. We are now seven months into dealing with Covid and that has entailed protecting residents and continually coordinating with numerous outside agencies. It takes thoughtful effort. Meanwhile, we have had to continue with all of the planned work – undergrounding the utilities, the fire station construction and the park.

 

What has been the economic impact on the Town?

Our tax base was down this year. It had nothing to do with Covid; it had to do, we are told, with some of the condominium valuations. We had to go back to all of the departments and make cuts to balance the budget. That has led to us being very watchful in our revenue forecasts. We have hired a consultant to see if the reduction in revenues is an outlier or will be ongoing.

 

You fell into an ongoing issue in the village on the north end of Longboat Key: the conflict between restaurant parking and the impact on the residential neighborhood. This has led to a resident-only parking permit program. What are your feelings about this approach and finding a balance?

We have received a lot of comment about this issue. The town is trying to find that balance between the commercial interests and the residents. It is not uncommon. As we evaluate the effectiveness of the parking permit program, we can make tweaks.

There may be an initial transition period as people learn the new rules but we don’t anticipate it to cause a staffing issue or the need for an additional police enforcement.

 

When is our new Police Chief starting?

The new Police Chief is scheduled to start Oct. 26. Current Chief Pete Cumming will serve his last day on Oct. 23. Both Chief Cumming and Deputy Chief Frank Rubino have reached out to the new chief and have been communicating with her.

 

When will residents and visitors actually see the above ground power lines removed?

The first power poles and lines will be removed from Phase I in the first quarter of 2021. Before that, we have to confirm all the circuits are working and then the contractor will go house to house switching the meters over from above ground to underground. That part will happen between now and December. After that, the poles will be removed in Phase I and residents will see them coming down between New Pass on the very south end of the key to the northernmost section of Country Club Shores. Then the town contractors will move to Phase II, the Village, and go through the same process.

 

Along with removing the power lines, what other aspects of the project will enhance or beautify Gulf of Mexico Drive?

The street lights will be a significant improvement in my view. Right now, all of the poles are inconsistent and made of different materials. Some are cement and some are wood. In the future, they will be consistent without any lines hanging off of them. There will also in the five-year FDOT work plan be the development of a turn lane at Country Club Shores that will include new plants and trees and general beautification. I think these improvements will help the aesthetics, safety and reliability, and continue to make Longboat Key more and more attractive.

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