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New Port Richey ex-City Manager Tom O'Neill forgets to return city-owned SUV

NEW PORT RICHEY — Tom O'Neill had a hectic few days after his retirement — however brief it may be — as city manager May 29. So hectic, in fact, he says he didn't get a chance to turn something in.

A city-owned sport utility vehicle.

A week after his retirement, the Ford Explorer — white with the city emblem on the side — was parked on a vacant waterfront lot behind O'Neill's home.

After a reporter's inquiries Friday afternoon, O'Neill got someone from the city to pick up the vehicle and return it to the public works facility.

He said he hadn't driven the Explorer, which had been his take-home vehicle, since his last day at work. He has his own truck and a motorcycle, but he said he brought the Explorer home again May 29 to unload some boxes from his office and just hadn't gotten around to returning it.

"I was just so busy I didn't have a chance," he said. "If I sinned, it wasn't with bad intentions."

O'Neill, a 35-year veteran city employee, had to technically "retire" last week because he had enrolled five years ago in the Florida Retirement System's Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, while he was still public works director.

Due to a controversial loophole in state law, however, O'Neill could return to his city manager post after 30 days off. After a year back, he would start collecting his monthly pension in addition to his salary — a practice known as "double-dipping." O'Neill will also collect a lump-sum "retirement" payment of $197,278.

City Council members have said they want to rehire him after the 30 days. O'Neill has said he wants to come back.

But retirement, however short, means he can't do any city business, can't use city mail. And he can't still use a city vehicle.

O'Neill said Friday that his first week of retirement got off to a stressful start: On Monday, he had surgery to remove skin cancer — squamous cell carcinoma — on his face.

He had put off the surgery, he said, until retirement so he wouldn't take any time off work.

"I've been somewhat preoccupied," he said.

Interim City Manager Jeff Sutton expressed surprise Friday when told the city's Explorer remained at O'Neill's home.

"It never occurred to me to ask," he said. "Maybe I should send someone out there to pick it up."

The Explorer belongs to the city's Public Works Department. O'Neill has been using it as his take-home vehicle since he was director of that department.

When he was named city manager in 2008, O'Neill did not take the roughly $4,000 annual car allowance his predecessors did. He just kept driving the Explorer.

On Friday, he said his failure to turn the vehicle in to the city was an oversight — one he didn't think was all that newsworthy.

But, he said with a sigh, "It is what it is."

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

New Port Richey ex-City Manager Tom O'Neill forgets to return city-owned SUV 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 8:26pm]
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