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New Port Richey: Council member left Main Street to restore group's funding

NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas resigned from her decadelong post running Greater New Port Richey Main Street, a last-ditch sacrifice to save the group's city funding in the face of a deadlocked council.

DeBella Thomas' job as executive director, which earned her a salary of $31,500 a year, prevented her last month from casting the decisive vote to give $30,000 in city funding to the downtown promotion group. The grant stalled at a 2-2 stalemate: Council members Ginny Miller and Bob Langford opposed the funding, unmoved by the passionate outcry from dozens of Main Street supporters.

After announcing her resignation, DeBella Thomas cast her vote Tuesday evening, swinging the council to 3-2 in support of renewing Main Street's city contract. A crowd that had amassed at City Hall to plead for Miller and Langford to reconsider — and which, when a change-of-heart seemed unlikely, released an outburst of ridicule and anger — thanked DeBella Thomas with a standing ovation.

DeBella Thomas said that Langford and Miller masked a "deep-seated antipathy" toward Main Street that led to their "disingenuous and 11th-hour move" to block the contract.

"In my 38 years as a resident and my 20 years of attending council meetings, I have never witnessed this contentiousness and animosity about any program," DeBella Thomas said, her voice quavering. "No matter what we did or said, we always buttered the bread on the wrong side."

Miller and Langford reiterated that they believed the money, which was secluded unspent in the redevelopment fund, was better saved amid a tight budget lined with layoffs. They questioned whether the group, which also draws funding from sponsorships and food and drink sales at its events like Main Street Blast and the Cotee River Seafood Festival, had depended too heavily on the city grant.

"There's passion. I feel it. I've heard it. I've been contacted. But there's passion on both sides," Miller said. "I, too, don't think that an organization that has generated this amount of public input needs to die over $30,000. To me that's just unbelievable."

Langford said before his no vote that he supports the group, adding, "I don't myself see why Main Street has to die or even suffer." The comment drew laughs and snide remarks from the crowd, with one man shouting, "Give me a break."

Group president Charlie Skelton said Main Street accepted DeBella Thomas' resignation last week and has interviewed two candidates for her replacement. Her husband, Ted, a marketing and advertising director paid $8,100 a year by the group, also resigned.

"This woman put in seven days a week, all kinds of hours. ... She was somewhat of a workaholic," Skelton said. "It's so difficult to replace someone like this."

The renewed city contract states that the group's $30,000 grant, a 25 percent reduction from last year, will be further decreased as the city seeks to wean the group from its budget.

Mayor Scott McPherson and Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe, who joined DeBella Thomas in the vote to fund the group, repeated their views that the Main Street money was a sound investment. McPherson said forcing the resignation made little sense, as it required weakening the group before paying to support it.

Marlowe added that Miller and Langford's vote had set "a very dangerous precedent" for the council, jabbing at Miller with a question of how many "tens of thousands" the city spends at Gulf Middle School, where she teaches math and social studies.

"I'd like to know how much we're spending," he said, "given we have a council member who is employed by the School Board, and we've now set a precedent of forcing resignations."

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

New Port Richey: Council member left Main Street to restore group's funding 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 8:58pm]
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