Amid the pop culture art hanging on the walls of the New Port Richey Library is a depiction of an 1980s icon: Rubik's Cube, the three-dimensional brain-teasing toy that tests dexterity and problem-solving skills.
The library's interior decorator provided an unintended analogy for the revenue-challenged New Port Richey city government. The City Council and staff just spent the last few months spinning and twisting to try to line things up correctly in the city budget.
The major preoccupation included proposed lay-offs, higher fees for drainage and street lights, delayed capital improvements, scrimping some savings from insurance costs, and a higher tax rate to offset an 11 percent plunge in property values and a community redevelopment budget that is upside down.
So, inside that library room, with a picture of Rubik's Cubes visible over his left shoulder, City Manager John Schneiger admitted he needed a respite from budgeting. Instead, he sat down Thursday morning with a cup of Starbucks coffee and a handful of residents to hear what's on their minds. Ten people, at least four of whom did not live in the city, came to the session. The first topic of conversation? You guessed it — the higher tax rate and the city budget.
Grumbling, however, did not dominate.
People wondered about economic development, annexations, and redeveloping the nearly vacant Community Hospital campus. In other words, they want to grow their city.
They asked about the controversy surrounding the Krewe of Chasco and the annual complaints that the parade float is demeaning to Native Americans. In other words, they want their city to be inclusive.
One non-city resident complimented the city's public works crews for the cleanup after Debby. He also said he would welcome an annexation into the city so central sewer service would replace the septic tanks in his neighborhood. In other words, there is an appreciation for government services and a concern for the environment.
There was near universal consensus that the Pasco Economic Development Council is the proper authority to market the city while Greater New Port Richey Main Street could emphasize the downtown core and the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce could help along the U.S. 19 corridor.
"If you look at the city's strategic plan,'' Schneiger acknowledged, "the area where we really fall short is economic development.''
The consensus ended, however, when the talk turned to rental properties. A landlord thought a possible new, higher fee for rental inspections was unfair, particularly since the owners get no homestead exemption tax benefits. The residents countered that landlords' inability to self-police their tenants and an unwillingness to maintain their properties has downgraded neighborhoods.
It's a problem that won't be solved in 90 minutes. The 2010 Census reported the home ownership rate in the city at just 56 percent. Contrast that to all of Pasco County where nearly four of every five homes are owner occupied. Likewise, 18 percent of city residents live below the poverty level. Across the county, that number is just 12 percent.
It is a demographic challenge that is at the heart of the city's long-term financial outlook. The city is poorer than its neighbors.
That was why the budget was never far from Thursday's conversation. It will be bad again next year, Schneiger volunteered.
One woman asked about the "structural change is coming'' phrase used by the city manager in a July 12 letter to city residents. Does it mean consolidating public safety services with Pasco County?
Apparently, not yet. Though city's continued obligations for public safety pensions are problematic. Schneiger again emphasized the tight city budget that is facing an $11 million five-year deficit because of previous borrowing by the community redevelopment agency (CRA).
The group has its own thoughts. Police and fire are the essence of municipal services. By giving up city public safety departments, "you're giving up your identity,'' said resident Mike Hogan. "I don't think that's good idea. You can't give up that identity.''
It is another twist to be accounted for in that budget cube: The people care about New Port Richey.