Three months ago, Pasco County officials began searching for answers to a question:
What does the city of Port Richey really want with the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs park?
Sure, the city says it'd just be a nice thing to annex, a feather in its cap, something to brag about.
But can you really trust government?
"I don't know why the city wants it," said County Administrator John Gallagher.
City to county: Get off our backs already.
"Why is the county trying to corral the city into as small an area as possible?" city utilities manager Patrick Stewart said in an interview. "I do not understand what's going on here. I'm going to the store to buy a lollipop and my brother is stopping me."
The issue was on the County Commission agenda Tuesday.
The city wants to annex nearly half of the 4,000 acres of coastal wilderness, state-owned land that is tax-exempt. More precisely, Port Richey says, the state-owned park wants to be annexed to get the city's cheaper utility rates for its planned picnic and restroom facilities: In February, the state filed a voluntary annexation petition.
If it's voluntary, Pasco County doesn't have the power to squash the annexation. But it can appeal, and Growth Administrator Richard Gehring picked apart the proposal.
The correct state agencies haven't signed off on the petition. The Pasco County legislative delegation was not properly notified. The annexation could jeopardize a cohesive park management plan.
And does Port Richey have a strategic purpose, like, say, making it easier to "cherry pick" neighboring parcels on U.S. 19? That would complicate the county's redevelopment plans along that corridor.
Gallagher summoned Port Richey City Manager Ellen Posivach to the microphone.
"What are your long-term goals?" he asked.
Posivach approached reluctantly, saying she and the city attorney had come only to observe. She said she just wanted to request a copy of the transcripts of the meeting.
But pressed by Gallagher, Posivach said the city did have goals.
"It brings all sorts of ecotourism to us," she said. "It certainly would be an additional benefit down the road."
Like scooping up other properties? Posivach said she didn't have the staff, time or money to pursue that.
She said Port Richey "is not a Gestapo state."
City Attorney Michael Brannigan said: "They're trying to make something sinister, and it's not."
But another issue for the county: How voluntary is this, anyway?
Gallagher said in his days as a New Port Richey city manager, he might have played hardball with property owners: You want utilities? Then agree to be annexed.
As a former Port Richey mayor, Commissioner Michael Cox can understand that. He recalled how he approached Gulf View Square mall to try and lobby it to agree to annexation into the city.
The mall? asked Chairwoman Pat Mulieri.
"Of course," Cox said, with a shrug. "I tried to annex the world."
So who did approach whom first? Stewart, the Port Richey utilities manager, said the state approached him a few years ago because it wanted to hook up to Port Richey's water line, which was only about 5 feet away. He said he told them that he could charge them higher water rates than other city customers — 25 percent higher — if they remained in unincorporated Pasco.
But if the land came into the city ...
Then, he said, he didn't hear about it again for years. "They ran out of money," he said.
But Kristin Lock, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Recreation and Parks, said Port Richey made a request to the state to annex a portion of the park in 2008.
"After a review of the benefits and disadvantages of annexation of multiple parcels of the park land, the division submitted an application for voluntary annexation to the city of Port Richey," she said.
Now, though, the whole thing is on hold. County officials have raised enough concerns that the state on June 3 asked the city to postpone its upcoming meetings on the matter until everybody can work out the issues.
Mulieri will send a letter to the state on the board's behalf, reiterating the commission's opposition.
"I don't want to give it up," she said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.