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Port Richey pulls plug on canal dredging referendum

PORT RICHEY — The canal dredging plan that is more than 10 years and $1 million in the making is, for now, dead in the water.

Port Richey City Council members pulled the plug Wednesday night on holding a referendum to see if waterfront property owners would be willing to pay for the estimated $10 million project through a special tax assessment.

The council shot down a proposal for consultants to spend $29,000 to complete a study that would determine how many homeowners would be asked to participate in paying for dredging 20 canals, as well as what each property owner would have to pay. The funding would have also paid for presenting the property owners with those numbers on a ballot.

The council, which has already spent $1 million planning and seeking permits for the project, also refused to fund continuing with the permitting process for nine other canals that contain environmentally sensitive sea grass.

The decision came down to not spending money on a ballot process that, in the end, had no chance of getting voter approval, several council members said.

Council member Terry Rowe said he heard clearly from constituents that a tax increase proposal had no shot. Rowe said the city should instead seek grants to pay for the project.

"The feedback I have gotten has been very negative on proceeding down this course," Rowe said of putting the dredge assessment to a vote.

Council member Nancy Britton agreed, saying the council needed to meet with affected property owners before proceeding with anything. Britton called on the council to hold a town hall meeting with property owners to discuss the project.

One waterfront property owner, Sandra Spaldi, said the council needs to have face-to-face meetings with those affected for it to have any chance. She also echoed Rowe's concerns, saying she would vote no on an assessment.

"It's not going to happen," she told the council.

However, it remains unclear how many property owners would be selected to participate in a vote on a special assessment. Taylor Engineering, a consultant on the project, has previously estimated about 140 property owners.

But until the council provides the funding for a thorough study to get to a ballot, the exact number of those affected, and how much they will pay, is unknown, said Joe Wagner, Taylor Engineering's manager on the project.

"It could be as many 250, we just don't know," Wagner told the Times after the meeting.

Wagner said that is why he recommended funding a final study to give the homeowners the information they need to make a decision. He also wished the council luck in finding grant funding for the project.

"It's a very difficult atmosphere out there finding grant money for projects like this," he said.

With the dredging project now ground to a halt, the only sliver of hope for completion remains the council's request that Wagner seek an extension on the permits already obtained.

But barring a change in the political climate amid a struggling economy, spending money to move forward is not the will of the board, according to Mayor Richard Rober.

"It seems crystal clear we want to stand pat right now," Rober told Wagner.

Port Richey pulls plug on canal dredging referendum 04/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2011 8:56pm]
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