NEW PORT RICHEY
Passed out in broad daylight last month on a dingy couch abandoned in a tiny cove of trees on one of two streets off U.S. 19 that are sparking rising community outrage, the couple awoke to a surprising call for lucidity.
After several calls to wake up, the heads of John Mowry, 41, and his 21-year-old girlfriend jerked up, and their eyes peeled open to the sight of New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart standing over them asking about their well-being.
The chief soon returned to his city police SUV, which sat in Pasco County territory abutting the line with New Port Richey, and lamented the state of affairs on Leisure Lane and Van Doren Avenue, two small streets that some say are having a disastrous effect on the nearby pristine Gulf Harbors neighborhoods and Southgate Center, at U.S. 19, south of Gulf Drive.
It is one of several areas along U.S. 19 riddled with drugs and prostitution that Bogart's street crimes unit constantly battles — an effort he likens to a hospital "triage" where you can only fight to stop the bleeding.
Mowry told a tale of homelessness in which he and his girlfriend had made their way to the neighborhood after he was attacked near State Road 52 on U.S. 19, getting his "throat slashed." He claimed they sleep during the day because it is too dangerous to do so at night.
Proof of activities other than sleep in the enclave can be seen, however, including a discarded syringe. A mobile home across the street also serves as a barometer of the street's culture, with junk piled so high outside that it chokes a fenced side yard. Dozens of similar properties line Leisure and Van Doren, with mobile homes and trailers on blocks that have broken windows and lots of debris.
One of the most vocal critics of what is going on in the area is New Port Richey City Council member Jeff Starkey, who also sat in Bogart's SUV that day.
"Can you believe people are allowed to live in these places?" Starkey said.
So why are city officials so interested in a troubled slice of county territory? They say because the problems there are spilling into the city, specifically causing issues for the Publix-anchored Southgate shopping center, which abuts Van Doren and Leisure.
It is a tricky geographic situation for both governments, as the shopping center is in the city, while the two trouble streets are in the county. For Starkey, frustration with the county is boiling over. More than a year ago, he addressed the Pasco County Commission with his concerns over Leisure and Van Doren and called for action.
On Jan. 3., during a City Council meeting, he railed about the conditions he encountered at Southgate Center as he tried to get dinner for his family at a popular restaurant, Joey's Pizzeria, and added his feelings of "disappointment" over hearing nothing from the county after he spoke to commissioners.
"(Joey's) was packed, but on a bench outside there was a girl so drugged out of her mind she could barely keep her eyes open," Starkey said.
For Joey's co-owner Mike Trgo, it's become part of running a business in the shopping center — constant monitoring of unwanted people misusing the outside benches or causing problems behind the shopping center.
"I'm used to it at this point. It's just that one bad place," he said. "Knock down that neighborhood."
Trgo is not alone in that sentiment. Some county residents are also fed up with the activity on Leisure and Van Doren. Laura Lally and her husband sold their engineering business in New York four years ago and moved to adjacent Gulf Harbors, where they own a $2 million home, one of many multimillion-dollar homes in the neighborhood. She criticized a "lack of urgency" by the county in cleaning up a tiny area that is dragging down the entire place.
"It's really depressing," Lally said. "It brings down the entire area. It is a huge black eye on our community."
Local Realtor and Gulf Harbor resident Anne Graffy agreed.
"I think it pushes people to look for other areas to shop and people with children to look for other areas to live," Graffy said.
The county has worked hard but struggled to address the problems in the area, according to Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker. Between March 2015 and March of this year, county employees have responded to more than 200 complaints on the two streets — 50 percent of which were generated by county staffers — and issued dozens of citations and warnings.
Tenant turnover in an area that is primarily rentals is the main problem in cleaning it up, as citations often are rendered unenforceable as one tenant leaves and another arrives, Baker said.
"It is a vicious cycle in that area," she said.
A lack of code enforcement staffing is also an issue, but help is on the way. In the next two months, a new four-person code enforcement team is slated to be assigned to a dedicated role of focusing on issues facing the U.S. 19 corridor, which will include Leisure and Van Doren. Those streets are two of many that need addressing, Baker said.
It is one reason, Baker said, she has repeatedly suggested that the city look at annexing the area of Leisure and Van Doren, so its code enforcement staff can focus on it. But that may not be an idea of interest to the city.
"From my perspective, that is a difficult proposition because all that property would mean to us is a drain on our resources," New Port Richey City Manager Debbie Manns said.
While there has been friction over the two troubled streets, there is an effort at cooperation between the city and county. Baker and Manns were scheduled to meet about the situation Friday, and Baker pledged "more robust efforts" at reporting progress to both the New Port Richey and Port Richey city councils regarding the U.S. 19 corridor — an area the county and other entities are working to revitalize.
The county attorney is also looking at New Port Richey's rental inspection/registry ordinance — which would allow code enforcement officers to get inside rentals and identify problem owners — as a model to beef up the county's code.
It was a suggestion Starkey made to Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, who thought it would be a good one to look at.
"We took his good idea, and we are working with it," Mariano said.