PORT RICHEY — Looking to spruce up the city's waterfront, the City Council is considering a $7.50 per person fee for passengers to board the sightseeing and casino boats in the city.
Vice Mayor Mark Hashim says his proposal, unveiled Tuesday evening, is a "win-win" because most of the revenue would go toward redeveloping the waterfront and buying city amenities, while 10 percent would go back to the businesses for aesthetic upgrades to their boats or their properties.
But boat captains like Ray Kelly, who runs the sightseeing boat Miss Daisy, say the added fee could destroy them.
"If they pass that, I'm out of business," said Kelly, who charges $19 per person for two-hour tours through the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River. "They don't own that river. The state owns it. The city needs to find their money somewhere else."
SunCruz doesn't charge anything for passengers to board its casino boat. Adding a fee now would cripple business during a tanked economy, said Beth Fifer, executive secretary for SunCruz.
"It's a shame that they want to do this during tough economic times," she said. "What I see is, if that would happen, it would be a dead waterfront district."
Hashim's proposal cleared its first municipal hurdle Tuesday, when the council voted 3-2 to instruct City Attorney Michael Brannigan to draft the proposed ordinance. That ordinance would come back for a vote at a future meeting.
Council members Perry Bean and Steven O'Neill joined Hashim in voting to move forward. Council member Phil Abts and Mayor Richard Rober voted against the idea.
Hashim and Bean asked Abts, an insurance agent, to recuse himself from the vote because he sells health insurance to SunCruz employees. But Abts refused and voted against the measure.
"This would have been fine three or four years ago," Abts said of the proposed fee. "In our current economic condition, people aren't doing sightseeing tours. If we try to levy an additional tax, we could put them out of business."
Rober said he wants the city to discuss the issue with waterfront businesses before moving forward.
"This is an idea that has a lot of merit, but one that needs to be fully explained to businesses affected so we can develop a partnership," he said.
Under the proposal, the tax would be levied on vessels with no land-bound destination, such as casino boats and sightseeing tours.
After setting aside 10 percent of the proceeds for the businesses, the rest would go toward improving city infrastructure near the waterways, such as roads and street lights, and for city improvements like new vehicles for the public works department.
Hashim's proposal is modeled after a measure in Horry County, S.C., which began charging a similar passenger fee earlier this year on two casino boats. Sightseeing boats there aren't charged.
"This is a way of generating dollars to return to the city," Hashim said. "It's a 'win-win' situation."
Hashim said the proposal wouldn't affect the commercial vessels but their patrons, who would pay the fee. In fact, he said, the measure would help those businesses by raising money to pay for upgrades to the area.
"When areas look better, it attracts more business to the city," he said. "It generates dollars and revitalizes areas. Property values go up, and that assists homeowners."
Bean said that while he's sympathetic to the plight of sightseeing boats being forced to charge customers an additional fee, he sees Hashim's idea as a benefit to the city.
Bean, a proponent of the city's plans to dredge 29 canals, even suggested the proceeds could help pay for that work, as well as other efforts to revitalize the commercial waterfront district.
"Hashim's proposal isn't an attack on businesses," Bean said.
But Kelly, the Miss Daisy captain, disagrees.
"If it passes," he said, "I'm out of there."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.