PORT RICHEY — After spending more than a decade and more than $1 million planning the city's ambitious dredging project, council member Terry Rowe raised the question Tuesday night:
Is it legal to move forward?
The city has spent redevelopment dollars, collected from virtually every city taxpayer, on the planning and engineering of the project. Can officials then turn around and assess only the waterfront property owners — the ones who would directly benefit — for the actual dredging work?
And should those waterfront property owners be required to repay the $1 million spent so far?
Those questions once again stalled a decision on bringing the dredging assessment to voters.
The Port Richey City Council put the brakes on a vote Tuesday for a consultant's study to determine how much each property owner along the 20 affected canals would pay. Such a study is needed before the city can put the proposed assessment before residents for a vote. The entire project is estimated to cost $4.3 million to $4.8 million.
Rowe made a motion to table the issue until City Attorney Joseph Poblick could investigate the legalities of the city's use of Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds in planning the dredging project. That motion passed 3-2, with Mayor Richard Rober and council member Steve O'Neill dissenting.
"When we go to a special assessment, then there is a legal question because we're taxing only certain people," Rowe said. "We're no longer saying it's city inclusive."
Some on the council viewed the "soft costs" – as council members often refer to the dredging planning and engineering – as different from the "hard costs" of the actual work that would be done.
"We have a certain amount of discretion over CRA funds and there's a lot about CRA that's gray. It's not black and white," Rober said. "I would think that after 10 or 11 years, if we were using those funds for soft costs for dredging improperly, I think someone might have come forward about that."
CRA funds are often used to "get the ball rolling" on projects that could benefit the city, such as the design for a recreation center, but the CRA money may not be used for actual construction costs, Vice Mayor Bill Colombo said.
So Colombo said he didn't see Rowe's questions as an "impediment." But he did say the council may need to require the waterfront property owners to repay those "soft costs" through a higher dredging assessment, if the project passes.
Poblick will investigate the matter, which will return for discussion next month, when the council members meet as the CRA board.