PORT RICHEY — It's not exactly Venice, but Port Richey has 29 man-made canals designed to carry boats to the Gulf of Mexico. But over the years, these canals have collected silt and other debris, making navigation difficult.
City officials have long struggled with how to pay for dredging the canals. The sluggish economy limits grants that might otherwise be available for such projects, so city officials are exploring another option: creating a special taxing district composed of the people who live on the canals.
"Some have said it's inevitable," said Mayor Richard Rober. "It's the choice of last resort, but the economy is dried up."
The first step toward creating the district is a workshop scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6333 Ridge Road. A representative from Taylor Engineering, the city's dredging firm, and a consultant from Government Services Group in Tallahassee will present details on costs of creating the district.
If the council decides to move forward, it will schedule other workshops. Then, affected residents would vote in a referendum to decide if the district should be created, said city attorney Michael Brannigan.
Other Tampa Bay area cities and counties have formed taxing districts to pay for such dredging projects.
Earlier this year, the Hillsborough County Commission unanimously approved a similar plan that is expected to cost each household from $2,000 to $3,000.
In Port Richey, costs would depend on the amount of shoreline at a property or the number of boat slips at places like marinas, said Joe Wagner, senior engineer at Taylor Engineering.
Mike Latini, who has lived in Port Richey for 27 years, says regardless of cost, dredging the city's canals is a must.
"I used to see fish and blue crabs," said Latini, who lives on one of the canals. "Now there's not a blue crab in the vicinity."
Latini, who sells real estate, said the dirty canals have made excursions in his 21-foot boat a chore.
"I've got pictures of when the tide goes out, and there's not a drop of water in the canals," he said. "Just muck and debris. That's how bad it is."
Amy Scott, who lives on Miller's Bayou, said she has discussed the issue with her neighbors. Scott said no one has voiced concerns about being reasonably assessed for the project.
"I would be fine with a proper assessment," she said. "It's just like a street or anything else."
During a recent workshop at City Hall, Taylor Engineering provided information on two assessment scenarios that could get things moving on the dredging project. One would cost about $246,757 and tax about 140 homes, businesses and lots.
The second is dredging the "Main Channel" that connects near Hooter's and includes part of two canals. The cost would be about $203,407. About 25 homes and businesses would be affected.
Before going forward with one of those two plans, Taylor Engineering will meet with the state Department of Environmental Protection to resolve about 100 conditions that are stalling either scenario.
The biggest hurdle? A site to store the dredged spoils.
Waterfront Park and a site on Oreto Drive were options, but both would cause environmental damage to seagrass or saltwater marsh, Wagner said.
"The city is still looking for a site," said Wagner, of Taylor Engineering. "They would need 4 or 5 acres."
Meanwhile, as city officials search for a new site, Rober says the idea of the special taxing district is "inevitable."
"We're faced with an extremely contracted economy," he said. "The real magic is, how do we fund this, and do we have the conviction to fund it?"
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.