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Budget shortfall douses Tarpon Springs fireworks

TARPON SPRINGS — The skies over Fred Howard Park will be dark this Independence Day.

City commissioners decided Tuesday that money earmarked for the annual fireworks display could be better spent.

Specifically, commissioners agreed the $22,500 budgeted for the display should go toward replacing the city's AM 1610 radio station, which relays emergency information to residents and has been broken since late last summer.

The damage to the equipment is irreparable and it needs to be replaced, said interim City Manager Mark LeCouris.

Initial estimates show a new radio system would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 for equipment and installation — roughly the same amount as the pyrotechnics, said city spokeswoman Judy Staley.

If the city immediately puts the money toward a new system, it could be up and running by June 1, the start of hurricane season, LeCouris said. "This is an opportunity right now to get started on it," he said.

Plans to replace two aging bridges at the county park could also affect the July 4th event, LeCouris said.

While the work is not scheduled to begin until early September, the park could be off-limits if the timetable changes, LeCouris said.

Further, the city might have to find some extra funds to pay overtime to city staffers to work the event. In previous years, county parks staff has assisted. But a reduced staff means fewer people to help out, said Robert Zakrzewski, the county's parks supervisor.

The city has sponsored a fireworks display since 1997. Before that, the event was put on by various city organizations and was held at several different sites, including the city golf course and Whitcomb Bayou. The last time the city canceled the fireworks display was in 2000 after a record year of drought that spurred fire concerns.

City Commissioners Chris Alahouzos and Susan Slattery both said they were hesitant to cancel the family-friendly event.

"We need to make every effort that we can to continue that," said Commissioner Chris Alahouzos.

But Mayor Beverley Billiris cautioned that other things may be cut from the budget in response to the loss of property tax revenue prompted by the passage of Amendment 1.

Patriotism lives in people's hearts, not in a fireworks display, she added. "We're not taking away the Fourth of July," she said.

City Commissioner Peter Dalacos said the benefits of the radio station far outweighed a one-night celebration.

"That is something that's an asset that will be there year after year after year … whereas the fireworks are done after 45 minutes," he said.

Dalacos said he didn't think voters fully understood when they passed Amendment 1 that "this is the type of thing we're going to have to look at first to cut."

Commissioners said the show could still go on if someone steps forward and offers to fund it by Friday, the deadline imposed by the fireworks company. If a sponsor comes forward after that date, the city could try to renegotiate with the company or look for someone else to put on the show, LeCouris said.

Also on Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-to-1 to accept the terms of an exit agreement for former City Manager Ellen Posivach.

Commissioner Dalacos voted against the motion, saying he believed Posivach should not be entitled to an extra 23 days of unused vacation time that was given to her by a former board but never added to her contract with the city.

Dalacos had unsuccessfully asked the board to rescind those extra days of accrued vacation, which would amount to about $11,163.

Under the terms of the agreement, Posivach will receive three months' severance worth $31,548; $49,312 in vacation time; and three months of pension contributions totaling $6,965.

In return, Posivach agreed to return her city car and all official city documents. Those items have been returned, said City Attorney Jim Yacavone.

Commissioners said they are interested in hiring a recruitment firm to aid in the search for a new city manager.

LeCouris said he would work with staff to put together a request for proposals for headhunting firms to present to the board at the next commission meeting May 20.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

Budget shortfall douses Tarpon Springs fireworks 05/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:19am]
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