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Council: No trims left, taxes will rise

NEW PORT RICHEY — After another round of trimming, the New Port Richey City Council moved Tuesday night to balance the budget the only other way: by raising taxes.

The council voted unanimously to raise the property tax rate 22 percent, from $6.63 for each $1,000 of value to $8.1. Residents will receive official notification in the mail.

The council had initially considered raising the rate as high as $8.18, which made some council members balk two weeks ago. So the staff trimmed another $101,000 from the $17-million general fund.

Those cuts included $40,000 for the Hacienda hotel redevelopment and a $25,000 grant for Richey Suncoast Theatre. The city will also refinance and delay some debt and eliminate advertisements for its parks and library in the St. Petersburg Times. The proposed budget already included the loss of six positions.

"I don't believe as a city we can go any lower without seriously affecting the delivery of city services," interim city manager Jeff Sutton said Wednesday.

The two council members who were hesitant about the tax hike two weeks ago, Ginny Miller and Judy DeBella Thomas, said they voted for it Tuesday because they had to certify a property tax rate by the end of the month but could try to make further adjustments later. At least four of the five council members had to vote yes for the rate to be approved.

"I could have voted no, but I didn't," Miller said Wednesday. "There's something about standing together in order to get consensus."

The approved rate is a maximum, and the council can reduce it as the budget process progresses.

"In light of how much revenue we've lost, it was better to leave some cushion and lower it if we can," Mayor Scott McPherson said Wednesday.

As the council presses forward, they do so without veteran city manager Tom O'Neill, who said in a letter Monday that he won't return from his retirement.

The council had certainly wanted him to. And members were concerned that it looked too much like they were just holding the job open for him.

O'Neill, who worked for the city for 35 years, had to retire in May because he had enrolled five years ago in the state retirement program when he was public works director. A controversial loophole in state law would have allowed him to return after 30 days, collecting both a salary and a monthly pension — a process known as double-dipping.

But in those 30 days, O'Neill, 55, found he rather liked his retirement.

"What's not to like?" he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

In his letter to the council, he said he was enjoying catching up on chores and spending time with his grandchildren.

He did say he would be willing to serve temporarily during the search for a new permanent city manager and would be available as a consultant on an hourly basis.

While O'Neill and Sutton negotiate O'Neill's re-employment (albeit temporary), the council will solicit applicants to replace him.

Asked what she was looking for in the next city manager, Miller said, "Tom O'Neill."

Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at iarnsdorf@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.

Council: No trims left, taxes will rise 07/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 9:01pm]
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