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Casting for ideas on budget

NEW PORT RICHEY — Close the library every morning? Hook up red-light cameras? Install a cell tower at the rec center?

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To save next year's skeletal budget, the city has begun entertaining new and unusual ideas for cuts and new revenue sources beginning later this year. The city has seen an 11 percent decline in property taxes, opening up a $375,000 hole that officials must fill before the $16 million budget is finalized in September.

The good news for residents: Taxes most likely won't go up. After increasing the city's property tax rate last year by 24 percent — the current millage costs homeowners $8.19 for each $1,000 of value — City Council members have said they'll push for anything they can to keep rates from rising, finance director Rick Snyder said.

But that means the city must find money in other, less orthodox ways, some of which were discussed during a special budget session Tuesday.

Among the ideas: installing red-light cameras at city intersections. Police interim Chief Jeff Harrington cited statistics showing that the city, compared to about 100 similarly sized municipalities across the state, ranks among the top in traffic deaths and injuries. If devices are put into place, Harrington said, the city could begin earning $500,000 a year per intersection in fines to red-light violators.

Most council members supported the cameras, saying they would help deter dangerous driving. Mayor Scott McPherson was the sole opposing vote in pursuing the idea, citing some studies that show the cameras produce little change in traffic safety and can even increase crash rates.

"It's a nice carrot. I see it out there," he said. "But I won't support it."

Port Richey became one of the first cities to install the contentious cameras two years ago. Since then, dozens of Florida cities have followed suit. Last week, state officials began officially recognizing the cameras, forcing local governments to pay $83 of every $158 fine to the state.

Council members also seemed swept up with the possibilities of erecting new cell towers, with council member Judy DeBella Thomas calling the idea a "no-brainer." City officials said the 65-foot towers, which would resemble a flagpole, could be built at the city landfill, the water treatment plants, the recreation center or almost anywhere along U.S. 19. If used by three different cell carriers, information systems director Clark Jones said, each tower could bring the city about $60,000 a year.

Like red-light cameras, the towers have generated their own amount of contention. Homeowners in Hillsborough County have staged protests for months against the towers, saying they pose health threats and hurt property values.

Smaller, simpler ideas were also part of the discussion. Council members supported adding a ramp and trailer parking fee for boaters launching from Sims Park, which parks and recreation director Elaine Smith estimated could cost $5 a day.

Council members also supported a $10,000 cut in the yearly funding for Greater New Port Richey Main Street, which has planned and promoted events downtown for about 20 years. Last year the organization lured nearly 100,000 people to five events, including the Cotee River Seafood Festival and Main Street Blast, funded by a city grant of $40,000.

Council members weren't so supportive of cuts to the library. Library director Susan Dillinger said she could save the city about $21,000 by laying off four employees and opening at noon instead of 10 a.m. But the council, pointing to the library's record-high popularity, opted to reserve any possible cuts for a "last resort."

Council members asked for more information on reinstituting a policy that would charge event organizers if city employees like police officers, public works employees or firefighters work overtime. The charge could earn the city nearly $75,000 over the next year, though council member Rob Marlowe worried the extra cost could hurt special events.

City Manager John Schneiger pitched a few other ideas for discussion — charging swimmers a fee to use the pool, moving police dispatchers, even changing the city's internal networking to a cheaper form of "cloud computing" — though details were not discussed Tuesday.

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Casting for ideas on budget 07/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 1:51pm]
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