NEW PORT RICHEY — It took an hour Monday before the City Council and the 60 residents in attendance came to the elephant in the room.
"I always save the best for last," quipped Rick Snyder, New Port Richey's finance director.
He was about to open discussion on the city's $17 million general funds budget, which faces a 5 percent reduction and could include the loss of six positions. And that grim outlook is based on Snyder's proposed 23 percent increase in the property tax rate, to $8.18 for each $1,000 of value from $6.63. Doing so would require a unanimous vote, and Snyder was trying to get a reading on where council members stood.
But if council members were bracing themselves for cries of "No new taxes!" they got an earful of something quite different.
"I just recently lost my job. The only place for me to actually go look for a job is the library," said Andrew Clements of Grand Boulevard. "I don't have transportation. If you close that library, where am I supposed to go to better myself?"
When Bob Langford, president of Friends of the Library, spoke, he asked supporters to stand. Almost everyone did.
But the show of force for New Port Richey's jewel still left the council in a tight spot: Either it takes up Snyder's plan to raise property taxes 23 percent, or it has to cut up to $500,000 more from the general fund.
The property tax increase is designed to keep city revenue in line with last year's. Council members stressed that though the rate would increase, the amount most people would pay would decline because property values have plummeted — 19 percent countywide.
"I know some of you are going to say, 'Trim the fat, trim the fat,' " Mayor Scott McPherson said. "(But) at some point the services are going to fall."
Though the formal vote won't come until July 28, Snyder and interim City Manager Jeff Sutton were looking for some indication of how council members would vote. They were split.
"This is not the time for us to slash the services that make us a city," said member Rob Marlow. "I am asking my colleagues to provide adult leadership for our community, not just jump in front of the antitax mob pretending it's a parade."
But Judy DeBella Thomas and Ginny Miller said they would like to try harder to find more cuts before raising taxes. Though the higher rate would still mean fewer dollars for many people, Miller said many families have less money to pay.
"As of this moment, I'd like to see us try our best to rein it in even a little bit more," she said.
Deputy Mayor Bob Consalvo suggested splitting the difference: raising the tax rate to $8 per $1,000 and cutting $120,000 more, which would require a two-thirds vote.
McPherson tentatively endorsed the 23 percent hike.
"There hasn't been a huge outcry against the (property tax) rate," he said. "What we have heard about was issues that dealt with quality of life."
Still, he said the consideration was premature because as of Monday night's meeting, the city didn't know what the county's property tax rate would be. If the county decides to lower the rate, beginning with its budget presentation today, the city would have to find a way to trim $261,000 more.