Jim Jakel hasn't yet begun crossing off the days as his time as Antioch city manager ticks down, but he can see retirement beckoning at the end of 2013.

In 10 years on the job, he's been a skilled administrator, an ardent lobbyist for the city and a big reason Highway 4 is being widened through Antioch, but he suspects his legacy will be something else.

"When one of my colleagues heard about my retirement," said Jakel, "he told me, 'You know what you're going to be known for? You kept that city out of bankruptcy.' Isn't that a great thing to put on my tombstone: Antioch didn't go bankrupt under his management."

City managers, whose primary job is to oversee day-to-day operations, do not make policy decisions -- that's what city councils are for -- but the best ones provide guidance and advice to help council members make decisions.

When Antioch hired Jakel away from the Contra Costa Council in 2003, he quickly saw trouble on the city's horizon. Public retirement benefits had been dramatically increased since his earlier stint as Martinez city manager, and unfunded liabilities were coming around the bend. When a real estate bubble eroded property taxes and a sour economy crushed local business, Antioch was on the expressway to insolvency.

"I don't give him 100 percent of the credit for keeping us out of bankruptcy because it was a team effort," former Mayor Jim Davis said, "but I give him the majority of it. He was always there for advice. He got us through the hard times."

Long before the notion of pension reform caught on, Jakel pressed for reduced retirement benefits for new hires. ("We started with the rule of holes," he said. "The rule is when you're in one, the first thing to do is stop digging.")

He identified savings with furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs, even though they deeply pained him -- "He took those personally," Davis said -- and found new money from vendors by negotiating extended contracts.

Jakel credits most of his job skills to experience gained from managing a Bonanza steakhouse, beginning when he was 18.

"I learned about human resources, payroll, finance, budgets and customer service in that job. If I were to name equivalents, dishwashers and busboys are like public works, the police are similar to the chef, and the other personalities fall in between."

The most intriguing part of a city manager's job, he said, is its breadth of challenges: "One minute you have an HR issue, the next it's a police chase that results in vehicles being smashed, and you worry about your management-risk costs going up. Then there's a standing meeting you have to attend, or a reporter is on the phone."

He likened the job to a corporate CEO, with the city council as the board of directors, "but the twist is the residents are not only the shareholders but the customers."

His highlights in 10 years were lobbying and pressuring Congress for the $36 million required to improve Highway 4; successfully pushing for eBART service, now scheduled for completion in 2017; opening a new community center; and, yes, staring down economic collapse.

"He was the right man doing the right job at the right time," Davis said.

If he's remembered only for helping keep the city stay afloat in the midst of a financial storm, well, there are worse legacies a guy could have.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.