NEW PORT RICHEY — Two City Council members surprised their colleagues by voting to gut Greater New Port Richey Main Street's funding, casting serious doubts on the future of some of the city's most popular events.
The vote, near the end of the final redevelopment budget discussion Tuesday evening, effectively canceled the downtown group's contract with the city, evaporating what was to be a $30,000 grant that buoyed the group's budget.
Council members Ginny Miller and Bob Langford led the push to dissolve the contract; Mayor Scott McPherson and Vice Mayor Rob Marlowe voted to renew it. The 2-2 vote to continue the grant failed for lack of majority. Ironically, fifth council member Judy DeBella Thomas was exempted from breaking the stalemate, as she serves as Main Street's executive director.
McPherson and Marlowe said they believed they had reached a consensus as early as July to cut last year's $40,000 grant by a quarter, in keeping with the belt-tightening throughout the budget. They tried to compromise with Miller and Langford by offering to pass a $25,000 or $10,000 grant, but the other members wouldn't budge.
"I'm mortified," Marlowe said Wednesday. "In the three-and-a-half years I've been on the City Council, this is the worst outcome I've ever seen.
"If we zero-fund them, there is no doubt in my mind (the group) will fold," he added. "If we lose Greater New Port Richey Main Street, who is a big advocate for small business, I think we have lost something huge."
Miller defended the cut by pointing to several other severe cuts to the city's budget. Seven employees in building services and code enforcement were laid off. The city's redevelopment grant program, which has given 1,500 matching grants for home and business improvements over the last decade, was canceled. And the city will face more than $500,000 a year in debt service for years to come. The $30,000 slashed from Main Street, she said, "might turn into a lot of money next year."
"I don't know why they would be surprised. I've been very dismayed how this (redevelopment) funding has been spent for many years," she said. "I work in a middle school. I deal with families who are struggling. It just wasn't right."
Langford and DeBella Thomas did not respond to messages.
Main Street has planned and promoted special downtown events for 20 years, with nearly 100,000 people visiting events like Main Street Blast, A Night in the Tropics and the Cotee River Seafood Festival last year. The group has also showcased an art gallery on Grand Boulevard since 2003.
Main Street's last quarterly report shows it earned $168,000 between October and June, most of it from sponsorships, the city grant and sales from food and drinks.
But the group spent even more, including about $75,000 on events, $50,000 on wages and $11,000 on office rent, for a net loss of about $4,000. Without the city grant, that loss would have been much higher.
"I'm concerned that downtown New Port Richey is at a critical juncture," Marlowe said. "We need all the help we can get to try and encourage business down there."
City records show the group has steadily received city funding since its $25,000 grant in 1993, increasing to its peak of $75,000 in 2005 and declining ever since.
Last year, the city canceled its advertising reimbursement for the group. This year, the city had proposed to cancel payment of overtime for police officers working special events, instead billing to the group. Members backed down after a show of public support.
Main Street had also asked to move its offices into the former First Baptist Church site on Orange Lake, a cost-cutting proposal aimed at shaving $11,000 in quarterly rent from its budget. The council instead sided with an older order to flatten the crumbling buildings, bought by the city about five years back. Demolition began last month.
"This city doesn't have much in the way of a (public relations) department … and downtown New Port Richey, like all downtowns right now, is struggling," McPherson said. "It's because of those reasons we need this kind of exposure for our downtown more than ever.
"When times are bad like this I understand the temptation to fold up your tent and send them away," he added. "But you have to at least at a minimal level promote yourself and promote downtown so that when the economy does change, we're still a Main Street city."
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.