Economic development was the theme in east Pasco this year, with both Dade City and Zephyrhills dipping into reserve funds to finance partnerships aimed at bringing more businesses and jobs into the cities.
Dade City spent $50,000 in January to team up with the Pasco Economic Development Council (PEDC) to develop a business incubator, now known as SMARTStart. Located in the Dade City Business Center, the former Lykes processing plant, the project helps clients grow their business by providing assistance with location, equipment, marketing, finances and training.
The Zephyrhills City Council pitched in $50,000 to help finance the creation of an economic development coalition, a collaborative effort between the city, the chamber, Main Street and PEDC. The council moved forward on the project after discussing it for more than a year, following a recommendation from a 2011 task force that studied ways to increase economic opportunities in the city.
Declaring "mission accomplished," the nonprofit Downtown Dade City Main Street Inc. closed up shop in March after 25 years of helping make the city's downtown area a destination point for tourists and shoppers. The city's chamber of commerce and downtown merchants association assumed much of Main Street's activities.
Dade City also saw a significant change in the appearance of Meridian Avenue when the dilapidated building that housed city hall was torn down in May; safety concerns forced employees to start relocating in 2011. Built in the 1920s, the building had been used for city operations since 1940.
Commissioners tentatively agreed in November on a site plan for a new city hall, to be constructed on the southeast block of Meridian and Pasco avenues, between Fifth and Sixth streets. With a roughly $5 million budget, city leaders aim to build the facility without going into debt; no timetable has been set for construction.
On the public safety front, the city agreed in July to join forces with the county to provide emergency communication services. Police Chief Ray Velboom said the partnership should improve response times on 911 calls. The Zephyrhills City Council listened to a pitch in October from county officials to follow Dade City's lead, but no decision has been made on joining the partnership.
Dade City commissioners started the year by giving themselves their first raise in more than 20 years, tripling their monthly pay to $300 and boosting the mayor's from $150 to $450; Commissioners Scott Black and Bill Dennis voted against the pay hikes. The salaries took effect Oct. 1.
The commission wrapped up the year with another divisive issue, a 3-2 vote to split the city clerk/finance director position into two jobs that took place in a workshop session — a move that prompted Black and Dennis to question the legality of voting on official business outside of a regular meeting and without notifying the public. City attorney Karla Owens assured the commission the vote was legal; still, Black led an effort to legally require the commission to vote only in regular meetings on items that are on the agenda.
The commission is now looking for two new employees to fill the finance director and city clerk positions; Jim Class, who served in the combined position for more than 20 of the 27 years he worked for the city, resigned in the wake of the controversy, and Joanna Akers, the deputy clerk, declined an offer to be the city clerk.
In Zephyrhills, voters agreed in April to extend council terms from two to three years and stagger them to avoid the possibility of losing a majority in one election. The city also inched forward on construction of a new library, an on-and-off project in the works since 2006. Construction should begin in March, but the $1.7 million price tag for the new 4,200-square-foot facility has already gone up to $2.55 million. The council reluctantly agreed to cover the difference with Penny for Pasco reserve funds.
The council also created a parks and recreation advisory board this year. Its first task is to come up with recommendations for how the city can bring the former Hercules Park and aquatic center back to life.
In tiny St. Leo, the push by Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club residents to de-annex from the town hit a fever pitch this year.
For years, residents of 85 homes in gated Lake Jovita — where 350 more units lie in unincorporated Pasco County — have grumbled at having to pay taxes to the town in addition to the county.
But efforts that have fizzled over the years to de-annex gathered steam with the election in April of two Lake Jovita residents — Commissioners Robert Inslee and James Wells — who have made it clear their constituents want out.
The two commissioners led a push all year to find a way to de-annex while the town's attorney advised the board that state law prohibits it. So the town commission voted unanimously in October to submit a de-annexation bill to Pasco's state legislators for consideration in Tallahassee next spring.
Next door in San Antonio, a new group took over the city's long-running Rattlesnake Festival.
After decades of running the beloved festival that draws thousands every year, members of the Rattlesnake and Gopher Enthusiasts Club and its aging membership could not continue.
The nonprofit group known as RAGE, which has been putting on the festival since 1967, sought the help of local Rotary clubs. The San Antonio, Dade City Sunrise, Zephyrhills Noon, Wesley Chapel and Wesley Chapel Sunrise clubs took over and put the event on in October with a few changes, including a beer tent and nighttime entertainment.
"We really wanted to make sure the festival went forward this year and hopefully for years to come," said Zephyrhills Noon Rotary board member Michael Mira said.