NEW PORT RICHEY
The city spent 2012 wallowing in financial distress, but after some painful budget cuts, things are looking up. For most of the year, city leaders struggled with a projected budget shortfall of $17 million over the next five years. The low point: laying off eight workers and freezing 10 unfilled positions. The budget season also led to the departure of City Manager John Schneiger, who announced that he had lost the support of the City Council.
And for the public, it meant an increase of 14 percent in property taxes, as well as increased stormwater and street light assessments.
Today the prognosis is better with the deficit projected at $5 million over the next five years. Further cuts to city staff and services likely will not be needed when the City Council sees the proposed budget in July.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never seen a city come this far in this amount of time," said city finance director Doug Haag. "Fortunately we have a City Council that was able to make the tough decisions to nip this in the bud before it got out of control."
The city's problems were blamed on debt on real estate purchases intended to improve the downtown core — before the economic collapse several years ago.
The city still has high hopes for those projects — the historic Hacienda Hotel and church properties on River Road and at Orange Lake.
A community cleanup of the Hacienda is scheduled as the city prepares for tours of prospective buyers or renters. The city has also received nibbles from potential buyers of the River Road church and plans for the Orange Lake property to be developed into a residential community.
City Council member Bill Phillips has pushed the Hacienda cleanup. He took office in April, returning to the council where he served from 1992 to 1994. He said he had little idea just how difficult the city's financial status was when he ran for election this time.
"It was extremely difficult,'' he said. "The numbers seemed to change every week. I was not expecting to see things from all of the angles that we had things coming from. To say I anticipated that, no I did not."
Phillips said when he decided to run he vowed not to pull punches about his views for the city's future. It led him to pitch not only the cleanup of the Hacienda to his colleagues on the council, but also to cut ties with a developer the city had been working with for years to redevelop it into a boutique hotel.
"I'm really excited about it,'' he said of the Hacienda. "The first thing is to clean it up and take pride in it and show everybody we are committed to polishing that diamond up."
Phillips said he is proud of the work the council has done to bring some fresh air into a stagnant financial situation.
"I'm just glad everybody is working together," he said. "I wasn't shy about giving my opinion. When I decided to run I thought I could bring a little different approach."
Mayor Bob Consalvo, recovering from stomach surgery, hopes to return to the council on Jan. 8 with a new sense of optimism.
"I see a turnaround. I see a different mood among the employees, on the council and in the public, quite frankly," Consalvo said.
The biggest change for the city may have been the departure of Schneiger. The city paid him a $40,000 buyout after he told Consalvo that he no longer had the support of the council.
In a matter of days, the council selected longtime New Port Richey Library director Susan Dillinger to serve as city manager on an interim basis. The council plans to begin a search for a permanent manager in January. Dillinger said she will help with the search and looks forward to going back to running the library, which she has done for more than 20 years.
Dillinger had the unique perspective of being a department head early in the year and being called upon to find cuts to her program, then moving to running the city.
"I'm just working to move us in a positive direction. Thankfully, I've been around a long time and people were willing to help me," she said.
And morale is on the mend, she said.
"It was very harmful for the staff to see people go. Not only for the employees who lost their jobs, but for all of the staff that was still here," she said. "I think the employees are starting to rebound. Anyone that knows me knows I don't do negative."