PORT RICHEY — The grass roots movement to dissolve this city of 3,200 has been around for years.
Supporters say it will put an end to double taxation. Opponents say being absorbed into Pasco County would stifle their voices in local government.
But in the months leading up to the special election — which could be as soon as May — when voters will decide whether to dissolve the city and revoke its charter, no one on either side can say for sure what will happen if Port Richey ceases to exist.
Mayor Richard Rober said the future of issues such as the city's $5 million debt could soon be resolved at a workshop on dissolution.
But the mayor added that the fate of city employees is still cloudy. Voters can't assume the city's 52 employees will find jobs at the county, or that its 11 police officers would automatically find employment at the Sheriff's Office.
According to the city's dissolution ordinance, a deadline is nearing for the council to resolve those issues. The council, the ordinance says, has 90 days to complete a dissolution plan that will determine what will happen to all aspects of the city's infrastructure.
"We can't speculate anymore," Rober said. "We need answers."
City employees' fate
First, what happens to city employees?
According to a dissolution ordinance crafted by City Attorney Michael Brannigan, if the city dissolves, its 52 employees and 11 police officers would be entitled to a severance package of two weeks' pay, three months of health insurance and retirement benefits.
But some wonder who will hire those employees, since many places are in the midst of hiring freezes. Also at issue is Port Richey's famed two-minute police response, which dissolution opponents say will be history if the city is dissolved.
"The county has as much financial trouble as the rest of the country right now," said Jim Priest, a former council member. "I don't think they're in a position to take over our policing and provide regular patrols like we're accustomed to."
Then, there's the city's finances.
The city has $15 million in assets, in addition to $5 million in debt from loans and bonds, which the county would have to assume.
"It can be that the county can take over the bonds or satisfy them," said City Attorney Michael Brannigan, "but there's no obligation that the county has to."
If the city dissolves, assets like the city's $1.8 million Community Redevelopment fund, or CRA, would be absorbed by the county.
Some fear that would bring to a halt things like the city's fledgling dredging project or proposed park improvements.
"What a crying shame that all of our CRA funds would go back to the county," Priest said. "For the city, that's a real devastation."
Amy Scott, a member of a petitioner's committee on dissolution, said dissolving the city is a logical move since residents pay taxes to the county as well as the city.
"We are a redundant layer of government that could give huge tax breaks to people if they dissolved this layer and the county absorbed us," said Scott, who also is running for a council seat. "I think 3,000 people could use that tax break and benefit from those services."
Judy Parisi, a resident and supporter of keeping the city intact, said she worries about voter apathy if the county elections office sends mailed ballots to voters, which officials say is likely.
Parisi said the measure has a better chance of failing if it goes to the polls, where 30 percent of Port Richey cast votes in last year's municipal elections.
"Those 1,900 registered voters will get the ballot in the mail, but who's to say they're going to vote?" she said. "Whether or not they go to the polls is one thing, but you might have voters who throw it away."
Second city to dissolve
If residents choose to dissolve the city, Port Richey would be the second city in Florida to dissolve by a vote of residents in the past year.
In September, Cedar Grove became the first city in the state dissolved by voters.
The city — with a population of 6,325, assets of $11.6 million and debts of $7 million — was absorbed into Bay County.
The 24 city employees got the same severance package being offered to Port Richey employees, said Valerie Lovett, spokeswoman for the Bay County Commission.
Four of the city's employees were hired in Bay County, Lovett said. None of the city's 12 police officers went to work for Bay County's Sheriff's Office, she said.
To absorb the city, Bay County had to redo its zoning plans to include Cedar Grove, amend the comprehensive plan and dispose of some of the city's property.
Even so, said Lovett: "It's been a pretty smooth transition. The people of Cedar Grove seem to be very happy with the situation."
Everyone needs to talk
Port Richey's dissolution vote is the second in three years for city residents.
A nonbinding referendum in 2007 asked residents if they wanted to spend $250,000 or more to dissolve the city.
But about 54 percent of voters rejected that measure at the polls.
The issue died down until January, when the petitioner's committee gathered 200 signatures — the required 10 percent of the city's registered voters — and drafted an ordinance asking if they wanted to dissolve the city.
The improperly worded petition was redone by Brannigan, and the council voted 3-2 this month to move forward with putting the question to voters.
In the coming months, council members say they plan to talk to county officials about the particulars of dissolution.
County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she hopes to discuss dissolution with the council.
"I think it would behoove everybody to sit down and talk if this actually materializes," she said. "Really, that's the big question."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.