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Airport project causes Zephyrhills council dustup

ZEPHYRHILLS — There was a certain tone to Manny Funes' e-mail that fellow City Council member Jodi Wilkeson said she didn't like.

Work had been delayed on a building near the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport that would house new businesses. Funes fired off an e-mail last week accusing City Manager Steve Spina of waiting 18 months to bring the stalled project to the council's attention. Funes also blasted council member Lance Smith — a partner of the project's developer CLS Zephyrhills — of representing a company that is helping the city lose money.

During a heated exchange at the City Council meeting Monday evening, Spina countered that the project was included in the latest budget that council members, including Funes, had approved.

"Manny, do you want me to sit down and read the budget to you?" Spina asked.

Smith told the Times that Funes' accusations were off base.

"He needs to get his facts straight before he says something," Smith said. "I don't know how you determine you've lost money when you haven't finished the project yet."

The dispute is rooted in a 2008 plan to lure businesses to Zephyrhills by creating a building to house them near the airport. The city's officials had seen their Dade City counterparts welcome new businesses to their Business Center, and they wanted to provide a similar bricks and mortar space.

The city partnered with Progress Energy to secure a $400,000 interest-free loan for part of the construction costs of a 50,000-square-foot building at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport Industrial Park. The city allocated money from its reserves and partnered with CLS Zephyrhills to pay the remainder of the construction costs. (Smith, who is a partner at CLS, was later elected to City Council.)

Then the economy tanked and the project was put on hold, as officials didn't want to raise a building without any viable tenants to occupy it.

Officials have yet to break ground on the project, although the city has spent $95,000 on building plans, a site plan and engineer.

According to the initial agreement, the city is supposed to start paying back the $400,000 loan in August. However, Progress Energy representatives have kicked around the idea of a one-year extension if the city commits to starting construction by August 2012. Then the city would have another three years to reimburse the loan.

Although Progress Energy officials have not officially agreed to that plan, Spina brought the update to the City Council on Monday evening. To move forward, the city would have to renew a line of credit, which costs $4,000 for the bank to issue. Zephyrhills would be responsible for half of that amount, and Progress Energy would pay the other half.

Funes noted that construction was supposed to take six months, barring any unforeseen difficulties. He suggested city officials should have walked away from the project in 2008 when they first realized they would have to postpone the development.

Because of his ties to the private firm involved, Smith recused himself Monday from any council decision on the project. But he took to the podium and explained that the economy tanking was unforeseen.

"The reason we stopped is we didn't want to lose money," Smith said. "We didn't want the city to lose money."

Spina and other council members echoed Smith's sentiments.

"Personally, I believe this project was in the best interests of the city at the time of its proposal and development," Spina wrote in a response e-mail to Funes. "I further believe we have been financially prudent in holding off on construction of a building we would not be able to lease or sell due to economic conditions."

Wilkeson agreed.

"The city knew that it was taking a risk," she said Monday evening at the council meeting, and tried to steer the discussion back to the issue of the line of credit.

Spina suggested the council wait until March 14 to discuss the issue further. That gives him time to talk with Progress Energy about extending the project and with bank officials about addressing the line of credit.

"The discussion (at the council meeting) wasn't going anywhere," Spina said later.

This isn't the first time Funes has sparred with other city officials. Last year, Funes butted heads with Spina over the dismissal of an anonymous complaint about a police officer. The complaint alleged that on his job application, the officer had failed to disclose that he had been involved in a case investigated by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 1992, when a notary improperly notarized documents for him.

In 2009, Funes proposed hiring a private trapper to provide animal control services for the city, instead of using Pasco Animal Services. But Funes became so involved in pushing the proposal that City Attorney Joseph Poblick asked him to recuse himself from the vote, during which the council decided to keep the county's services.

After being directly involved in these situations, Smith said Funes' e-mail and comments during the meeting did not surprise him.

"That's kind of the way Manny is," he said.

Airport project causes Zephyrhills council dustup 03/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 8:50pm]
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