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New Port Richey endured controversy, changes in 2010

NEW PORT RICHEY — Standing before the City Council, flanked by a hundred supporters, resident Amy-Joy Weigel began to speak.

"I beg you," she said. "Please do not take this away from us. It's not just the music. It's the beauty. … This is what makes the city wonderful."

She had come to City Hall that night in September to fight for Greater New Port Richey Main Street, the downtown not-for-profit organizer of events such as the Cotee River Seafood Festival and Main Street Blast. The council had deadlocked over whether to grant the group $30,000, an allotment the group said it needed to stay afloat.

The council ultimately approved the grant after council member Judy DeBella Thomas, in a last-resort move, resigned as the group's longtime executive director — freeing her to cast the decisive vote.

"In my 38 years as a resident and my 20 years of attending council meetings," she said in October, "I have never witnessed this contentiousness and animosity about any program." The stalemate and the sacrifice were among the city's more bitter moments of 2010, a tense year marked by budgetary red ink, developmental disappointments and a high-profile arrest involving Mayor Scott McPherson.

Not everything was so downbeat. Main Street Landing, the stalled downtown center decried for years as an eyesore, was rejuvenated by Gainesville developer Ken McGurn's $500,000 pledge to resume construction.

McGurn and city leaders said they were optimistic that the proposed center of shops and townhomes, with an estimated final cost of $20 million, could within a few years be opened for business — a big change from 2008, when the city had considered suing McGurn for failing to deliver.

"If he can get it finished, it could really be a very nice anchor for downtown," Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe said after McGurn's pledge in July. "The trick is getting from here to there."

Leadership changes and controversy

The city's leadership also saw some new faces. John Schneiger, a former deputy city manager in Eustis, was selected in March as city manager after the retirement of Tom O'Neill. And Jeff Harrington, a former detective and 18-year veteran of the city police, was promoted to chief in August after the retirement of Martin Rickus.

The city's biggest crisis in leadership came in July when McPherson was accused of exploding at Pasco County deputies who were arresting his wife during a Sunday night of dinner and drinks that ended at a Trinity bar and grill.

McPherson, deputies said, threatened to use his mayoral influence to end their jobs, calling them "f---ing idiots" and "Keystone Kops." In the days after the arrest, McPherson asked for forgiveness from residents, considered resigning as mayor and said he had "done a poor job" of taking responsibility for his behavior. A week later, during his first public speech since the arrest, he accused the media of printing his words out of context.

The scandal didn't keep McPherson from speaking his mind. In August, when council members considered installing red-light cameras, McPherson served as the sole source of opposition, questioning the "junk science" he said had helped legitimize their use across the country.

In October, the council approved a contract for the cameras, calling their potential benefits to road safety too promising to resist. Harrington expects they'll begin recording next year.

Payments from red-light violations, which will net the city $75 per ticket, could help fill debt gaps in the city budget, which officials said was dismal this year and will probably get worse. Seven city employees were laid off in 2010, and homeowner redevelopment grants were frozen by financial cuts.

But neither problem could compare to the city's biggest burden — a $7 million debt expected to be paid back in August. Officials in years past had bought big-ticket properties such as the Hacienda Hotel, the First Baptist Church and the First Church of Christ Scientist in hopes they could resell them for a profit. When the market crashed, the city's investments became liabilities.

City officials face financial challenges

In June, the city refinanced its note with a new loan due back to the bank by 2025. To pay for payments and debt service, officials said, the city will need to spend virtually all of the redevelopment money for next year — and probably for years to come.

"Nobody ever thought we would be keeping those three properties on our books for so long," finance director Rick Snyder said. "We need a couple years of healing."

Officials will have to do it without the city's biggest employer and taxpayer: HCA Community Hospital. The hospital broke ground on its new home in Trinity in 2006, with plans to leave an emergency room and psychiatric ward at its current facility on Marine Parkway.

Council members fought the ward, with member Ginny Miller calling it a dangerous and costly "ticking time bomb." But in June, the state backed the hospital's new blueprint, giving HCA full rein to keep the facility within city limits.

"They're moving all the good services into the unincorporated area of Pasco County, and they want to leave us with the problems," Marlowe said before the state's approval. "It's going to cost the taxpayers of New Port Richey if they get away with this."

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

New Port Richey endured controversy, changes in 2010 12/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 25, 2010 1:04pm]
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