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New Port Richey mayor, legislators trade barbs

NEW PORT RICHEY — Most of the speakers coming before Pasco County's legislative delegation on Friday simply wanted to protect what funding they have.

Asking for more money seemed to be out of the question.

But New Port Richey Mayor Scott McPherson had his eyes on the billions of dollars the federal government is likely to send to the states.

"I would like a specific line item for the city of New Port Richey," he said. "That is my request."

Delegation chairman Sen. Mike Fasano laughed.

"That is called a turkey," Fasano of New Port Richey replied.

And that kind of special project funding — a staple during flush past years — currently is not in the cards as the state faces one of its worst financial years in memory. Every program, agency and service faces cuts to some degree as tax revenue continues to decline by millions of dollars each month.

Fasano's office even sent out a memo telling groups that usually request money not to ask this year.

McPherson pressed on.

The mayor, a strong supporter of President Obama, criticized the all-Republican delegation for cutting millions of dollars for social services during the Legislature's recent special session and then claiming victory for having avoided raising taxes.

Fasano bristled.

"I'd love to see some of my colleagues' quotes that it was a success," he said.

Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa jumped in.

"Our goal and objective was to make it through the two weeks by making strategic cuts," Crist said, adding that he took no pleasure in it. "We did not focus on taxes and fees because we did not have time."

That time will come during the regular session, he said.

Rep. Tom Anderson of Dunedin chimed in as well, saying that the Legislature cut health services by just 1 percent — not nearly as much as McPherson suggested.

People in the audience who were waiting to speak — that was most of them, as McPherson was second on the agenda — cringed in their seats. McPherson continued, berating the lawmakers for not mitigating the cuts by, for instance, agreeing to a gambling compact with the Seminole tribe.

Fasano told the mayor he had one minute before his time expired. Before McPherson could say much, Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel spoke up to defend the lawmakers' choices: "Nobody is declaring victory. … [Balancing the budget] is not a fun thing to do. But it's a responsibility."

McPherson tried to backpedal.

"I'm not here to chide anybody," he said. "I just wanted to get some points across."

Crist countered that when making points, the mayor should have his facts straight.

The back and forth went on a few minutes more, with McPherson on defense but yielding little. Fasano turned to the mayor with some pointed comments.

"We haven't seen a dime of those stimulus dollars yet, and it sounds to me that everybody has already got them spent," he said. "If they come, we will steer them as we can. But let me ask you something, Scott. The city of New Port Richey bought the Hacienda Hotel. They just bought a church … for millions of dollars. Could those dollars have been used for infrastructure projects?"

"It's very easy to play Monday morning quarterback. But yes," McPherson answered.

"That's the decisions the city has made," Fasano replied. "Now we're going to have to make some decisions in Tallahassee."

McPherson soon left the lectern. But his appearance resonated throughout the hearing.

When Dave Neal of Red Apple School mentioned that his organization could use more space, Fasano noted that the city of New Port Richey has an old hotel available. When Phyllis Grae of Port Richey asked the delegation to oppose efforts to dissolve the city, Crist reminded everyone of the New Port Richey mayor, who came to ask for money and then "antagonized" the lawmakers.

"Wouldn't it make sense to roll the city of New Port Richey into the city of Port Richey?" Crist asked Fasano.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

New Port Richey mayor, legislators trade barbs 01/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 10:45pm]
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