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New Port Richey city manager gets high marks for first year

NEW PORT RICHEY — Ever since the black-and-white photographs of old New Port Richey went up on the walls of City Hall last year, Tom O'Neill has found himself stopping to study those bygone scenes.

He appreciates the city's history. So far, the city seems to appreciate his history, too.

O'Neill, 55, has nearly finished his first year as city manager, a position he took after working for the city for nearly 35 years.

City Council members say the relationships he built and lessons he learned working his way up have paid off in a number of ways, from high employee morale to an easy and accessible manner dealing with both elected officials and residents.

"He's just Johnny-on-the-spot," council member Marilynn deChant said. "I attribute that to Tom being with our city for nearly 35 years."

At the end of last week's council meeting, all five members praised O'Neill's work over the past year and said they want him to continue in the position. They have not performed a formal review; his one-year contract, which expires next month, will be placed on a future council agenda.

The meeting stood in sharp contrast to what happened in their next-door neighbors' city just last month.

The Port Richey City Council held a contentious meeting at which it ousted Richard Reade, the manager of one year. That meeting included finger-pointing, insults and booing.

O'Neill, who is paid about $110,000 a year, said his long history with the city, and the fact that he lives in town, make a huge difference.

"This has been my entire adult life," O'Neill said. "This city has given me my entire career."

O'Neill said he's happy with a number of accomplishments in his first year, including the completion of the first phase of the Railroad Square streetscaping project, the near completion of a new public works facility and the completion of the $2-million drainage project on Missouri Avenue.

This year will have more challenges, not least of which is putting together a lean budget. The city eliminated 11 positions in the current fiscal year, all through attrition and retirement.

But O'Neill said he wants to think big, too, and is proposing that City Council members hire a consultant to come up with a new downtown revitalization plan, which would look at such things as public incentives, architectural guidelines and uses for city-owner properties.

He said his timing — namely, the down economy — is no coincidence.

"What better time to do it?" he said. "Then we're poised and ready when there's an upswing."

The most obvious redevelopment problem on his hands? The stalled Main Street Landing project, which has left the downtown with an abandoned construction site.

O'Neill was publicly optimistic about its prospects for most of the year before taking a more aggressive tack around December, asking council members to consider suing developer Ken McGurn. Discussion of potential legal action is on the agenda for Tuesday night's Community Redevelopment Agency meeting.

"We want to have an image of success in the city," he said, "and right now that is not an image of success."

Given that his employees did not get raises this year, O'Neill said he is not asking for one either. He noted, too, that his first job was as a laborer in the Public Works Department.

"In my first year, I made a little over $5,000," he said. "How can I complain?"

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

New Port Richey city manager gets high marks for first year 01/11/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:53pm]
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