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Port Richey moves into 2010 on solid footing

PORT RICHEY — The west Pasco town known for its tumultuous politics began 2009 with a new city manager and the resurgence of an age-old issue: whether the city of 3,200 should dissolve.

A divided City Council voted 3-2 in the spring to put the dissolution question before voters once again. Residents had voted back in 2007 to keep the city intact, but a pro-dissolution group had collected enough signatures in January to request another referendum.

"It's simply a case of a significant portion of the electorate who wants this done," council member Perry Bean said back in February about putting the dissolution question on the ballot. "Whether I like it or not, I can't ignore that."

Then-vice mayor Mark Hashim and council member Phil Abts joined Bean in voting to move the referendum forward, while Mayor Richard Rober and council member Steven O'Neil dissented.

Then the municipal elections in April brought a game-changer: anti-dissolution candidate Bill Colombo was elected, replacing Hashim, who chose not to run for re-election. The night he took office, Colombo voted with Rober and O'Neil to call off the referendum.

While they debated the future of Port Richey, officials placed a new city manager at the helm: Ellen Posivach had been serving as assistant city manager for just three months when she was tapped in December 2008 to fill in for Richard Reade, who was ousted after a year on the job. The council dropped the "interim" part of Posivach's city manager title in June.

Posivach picked up the torch on several ongoing projects. A consultant continued working for permits to dredge 29 mucky canals in the city. With grant funding looking scarce, city officials began considering the creation of a special taxing district to pay for the work.

"Some have said it's inevitable," Rober said in July. "It's the choice of last resort, but the economy is dried up."

Still, the city weathered the financial storm better than many other local governments. While some cities had to lay off employees or cut services, Port Richey added a police officer and gave all of its employees a 2 percent raise. The city saved money by not filling two positions lost through attrition, ending up with a $100,000 cushion to spend.

The city also expanded its red light camera system under a new vendor. In September, Traffipax installed six cameras at some of the city's busiest intersections: U.S. 19 and Ridge Road; U.S. 19 and Grand Boulevard; and Richey Drive at U.S. 19.

Since American Traffic Solutions installed the first red light camera in May 2008 at U.S. 19 and Ridge Road, the tickets have brought in about a quarter of a million dollars. The money goes into the general fund, which pays for everything from employee salaries to equipment.

But officials said they hope the cameras also serve as a deterrent for would-be light-runners.

"It's been a very good tool for us," Port Richey police Chief David Brown told the Times in September.

A different proposal to raise money sparked a controversy that left Abts with a $36,319 legal bill.

Abts cast the deciding vote in January killing a proposed passenger boarding fee on sightseeing and casino boats. Hashim, who proposed the $7.50 per person fee to raise money to fix up the waterfront, filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging Abts should have recused himself.

Abts sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz casino boats, which would have been affected by the fee.

The ethics commission cleared Abts in July of any wrongdoing. But the process left Abts with the sizable legal bill.

After the ethics panel rejected Abts' request to send the bill to Hashim, Abts asked his fellow council members to pick up the tab. Abts argued he was defending his actions as an elected official.

But his fellow council members in November refused to pay the bill. Abts filed a lawsuit this week against the city to recoup the cost.

"If you don't decide this," Abts told the council last month, "a judge will."

Port Richey moves into 2010 on solid footing 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 8:02pm]
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