If you head to the Southold Town Board meeting Tuesday afternoon, you might be surprised to hear that Jim McMahon, the town’s longtime head of the public works department, is retiring after 32 years of writing grants, creating parks and recreation space and just trying to make life a little better for kids and families in Southold Town.
But he’s not going anywhere. McMahon is retiring from a full-time to a part-time position to help the department with ongoing shellfish programs and grants that need rolling over every year — and to keep himself busy.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I figured I could still be helpful to stewardship programs in town,” he said.
With a background in education, McMahon left a job as the head of an alternative school for troubled teens in Monroe, Conn. — a town not too far away from Newtown, where a 20-year-old gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults last Friday — to work for Southold Town, working at first primarily with kids at risk, then sticking with the position as it evolved into grant writing for community block funding for affordable housing projects and grants for land preservation and upkeep.
Patch chatted with McMahon, a Mattituck resident and native of Southampton, before the board approves his retirement on Tuesday.
Patch: Tell me how you started working for the Town after a teaching career.
McMahon: I started working with at-risk kids here in 1981, because the Town received a New York State juvenile aid grant to assist with community service programs for kids who were getting into trouble with police — and giving them a fine that their parents would end up paying didn’t make much sense. But if you make them pick up garbage all day, they might think twice about causing trouble.
I remember five girls, all daughters of doctors and lawyers — not like hardened criminals or anything — who had spray painted almost all of the road signs from Rocky Point to Orient Point, caused a lot of damage. Community service for them was a much more effective punishment than missing cheerleading practice.
Patch: Your time as the head of the alternative school in Monroe must have helped prepare you for dealing with at-risk kids.
McMahon: We ran the school as part of the regular high school program with about 16 kids involved. These were the kids with the high IQs but were low achievers who got bored with general math and such and tended to be disruptive in class. We gave them their own building and advanced them two or three grades to the point where they could get back into their regular high school circuit. We’d take them on backpacking trips, boat trips, just to really make them pay attention to themselves.
Too many times, teachers rush through and think, “I have to be through the Civil War by Christmas,” only thinking of the score on the test but not what’s going on with the kids. But when you’re in a tent for two weeks with me and you want to cause trouble … guess what, at the end of the day I’m still going to be there, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Not that I don’t like you as a person.
Patch: It’s interesting that we are talking about your experience with troubled kids in Connecticut so soon after the tragedy in Newtown ...
McMahon: We were not too far from Newtown in a fairly white-collar community, where the educational systems are pretty high-end. And a lot of the kids have very wealthy parents, you know, who are too busy at the country club and the kids are left on their own. A lot of them had never even been to a restaurant.
So they are lost in the shuffle. But we took these kids from screwed up homes and took an interest in what they were doing — and we’d tell them, “Yes, you were dealt a bad hand, but you have to play that hand. The world isn’t fair — if it was I would have been born rich, not just good-looking.” We taught them to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions.
Patch: Tell me about some of the things you are most proud of during your tenure as head of Southold Town Public Works.
McMahon: We’ve generated about five million a year in grants that the Town never got in the past to fund all sorts of preservation and stewardship projects. And I remember when I first started, the Town had no public recreation facilities at all, now we’ve got Tasker and Cochran parks, the Old School House park in East Marion, and the Peconic School House is a great new asset. We’ve established about 1,000 acres of land that public works manages now for the community.
Over the years I focused on affordable housing as a public works project, and now we have 160 units in town — Southold Village, Elijah Lane Estates, Cedar Fields, etc. Affordable housing continues to be a big issue and will continue to need funding. Also, I’m very proud of helping to establish the non-profit shellfish hatchery at Cedar Beach [the Suffolk County Marine Leaning Center in Southold]. When Suffolk County Community College moved out in the late ‘80s, we just needed some vision to re-establish something that was already there, and it’s doing very well now. Peconic Dunes camp was going to close up years ago, but we convinced Cornell Cooperative to take it over and run a summer camp — and it’s booked every year.
One thing I’d like to work on now is to get some projects that seem simple enough to move along faster than they have been, getting bogged down in committees. It shouldn’t take two years to put in a four-car parking lot at the Bittner Preserve. Right now we are working on matching grants to clean up the Laurel Lake Preserve property, and by the time we’re done, there will be 17 miles of trails winding through there. But if there isn’t someone paying close attention to these projects, they will take forever to complete.
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