PORT RICHEY — The aging firehouse needs major upgrades. The vegetation is overgrown and the bathrooms are falling apart at Port Richey parks. And the city pier near Whiskey River has been fenced off because it's structurally unsound, city administrators told City Council members.
Meeting as the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, the council received a sobering report last week about the rundown conditions around town. The city declared itself blighted nearly a decade ago in order to create the redevelopment agency and obtain funding to fix itself up. Since then, a good amount of the agency's time and more than $1.2 million has gone toward a proposal to dredge 20 canals, but the effort has stalled again amid legal and financial questions.
Mayor Richard Rober left last week's meeting feeling the city has plenty of projects that need attention now — and it's time to decide whether dredging is one of them.
"I think there has been tunnel vision when it comes to dredging that has contributed to some of these things," Rober told the Times after the meeting. "It makes no sense to look back and point fingers. I'm sitting in the middle now, so blame me. But I really believe it's time to focus on other needs."
Rober supports a proposal to spend $30,000 for a consultant's study needed to hold a non-binding referendum on the dredging plan. The study would outline the proposed tax assessments on about 140 property owners along the canals to pay for the dredging, estimated to cost between $4.3 million and $4.8 million.
Council member Steve O'Neill also supports moving forward with the study. But he hasn't garnered support from the majority.
"I just don't see the property owners coming forward who are willing to take on more taxes in this economy," said Vice Mayor Bill Colombo. "So it's hard for me spend money on something I just don't see going anywhere."
Council members Terry Rowe and Nancy Britton both say they are waiting on a legal review. Rowe has questioned whether the city can charge only waterfront property owners for the dredging work, when officials have used redevelopment tax dollars collected citywide for the planning costs.
City Attorney Joseph Poblick said he has found no roadblocks to moving forward with the project. Poblick said city redevelopment funds are often used for planning purposes, and portions of the dredging project will be in front of city parks, which would benefit all residents.
Poblick also said he consulted with Tampa city attorneys who likened Port Richey's dredging planning costs to the redevelopment funds Tampa spent on its Riverwalk and the Glazer Children's Museum.
"I don't see any issues with the project as it stands," Poblick said.
But both Britton and Rowe say they want assurances from other legal experts on the city's use of redevelopment funds.
"I just want to make sure we are on sound legal footing to move forward," Rowe said. "We have been working on this for a while, so I think taking a little more time doesn't hurt."
But Rober said the time, money and energy spent on the dredging project over the years is proving to be a drain on the city's other needs. For much of the redevelopment agency's history, Rober said, the lion's share of the funding has gone toward planning the dredging, as a groundswell of property owners lobbied for the project.
"The most immediate feeling was we're going to have money for dredging," Rober said, describing the mind-set when the redevelopment agency was created.
The dredging project dominated many council meetings, and officials hoped to get grants to pay for the work. But when it became apparent property owners would likely have to foot the bill, Rober said, support began to soften.
Paul Boudreaux, a property and land use law professor at Stetson University, said it's not uncommon for communities to develop unrealistic ambitions when a new source of funding — like a redevelopment taxing district — becomes available.
"Government officials are often overly optimistic when they use techniques like this," Boudreaux said.
Rober would like to see the dredging project happen. But more than anything, he wants a decision on the issue:
Either move forward, he said, or move on.