NEW PORT RICHEY — One commissioner walked out. Another accused the chairman of "doing an injustice to the board." And by the time Pasco County commissioners had wrapped up for lunch Tuesday, numerous issues divided them.
One thing was clear: After two hours of public testimony — most of it surrounding the SunWest park project in Aripeka — nerves were starting to fray.
At issue was Chairman Jack Mariano's proposal to allocate more money to the proposed park. Commissioners have allocated $3.9 million to build a beach, volleyball courts, parking and a boardwalk. Most considered SunWest a closed issue.
Yet for Mariano, who has continually pushed for more funding, SunWest has remained alive.
On Tuesday, as the meeting got under way, he found dozens of allies in the audience. They wore white T-shirts that said "I (heart) SunWest." Many later said the chairman urged them to attend.
They appealed for more money, making many of the same arguments that Mariano has.
"This is a beautiful area, an ideal area to put a park," said Victor Branson of Hudson. "It's a shame it sits there and the funds aren't going to be allocated that should be allocated."
"The No. 1 thing that attracts people to Florida is beaches," said another speaker, Taylor Ney, a senior at Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey.
"Kids need a place to go to," said Joann Bliss, 76, of Hudson.
"You're going to need more parking when more people find out about this," said Janet O'Hara, also of Hudson.
Mariano's frequent pitch is that the county has "only one shot to get it right" and needs to invest now in additional amenities. Among those: extra parking, a second bathroom, high-grade volleyball beach sand and a splash pad for young children.
Other commissioners contend the additional amenities can be added when the funds become available. After two hours of public testimony, it became clear they had had enough.
"When we voted on this park we said it would be built in phases," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "We need to separate wants from needs."
Turning to Mariano, she added: "I think you're doing an injustice to the board. It's not like we don't want this, but there is only X amount of dollars."
Commissioner Ted Schrader said the park was never intended to be more than a boat launch and a beach on a freshwater lake, but over the past year has evolved to include a boardwalk, a wakeboarding facility and a volleyball facility. The board supported those changes, Schrader pointed out, but can't afford the additions sought by Mariano.
Then, referring to the chairman, he added, "He's spreading propaganda. He's misrepresenting the board. This board has supported SunWest."
He then made a motion to withdraw an item about the park from the agenda, sparking an argument from Mariano who wanted to discuss it. Shortly later, Schrader walked out.
"Go ahead and walk out," Mariano said as he passed by.
The meeting broke for lunch minutes later, leaving Mariano standing among his supporters. Asked whether he would back down rather than bring up SunWest again, Mariano said: "It's not up to me. It's up to them."
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.