Nearing his one-year anniversary as New Port Richey city manager, John Schneiger is still the new guy.
So much so that at a community forum Tuesday afternoon – billed as lunch with the city manager – one resident referred to him as "Mr. Slessinger.'' It can be expected. Schneiger is the fourth person to serve as city manager in six years after just one person, Gerald Seeber, held the title for the prior 16.
The identity crisis, however, extends beyond the city manager's office. Pasco's largest city is trying to figure out its own role as the municipal anchor to the county's west side.
The city will unveil an updated redevelopment plan in May that will attempt to put a renewed focus on neighborhood improvements. Good choice. Much of the commercial redevelopment downtown didn't materialize. The Great Recession, even greater lending restrictions and shrinking property values combined to stymie the Main Street Landings residential/commercial complex, a hoped-for hotel/meeting space at the historic Hacienda Hotel and ambitions for town homes around Orange Lake.
Downtown isn't the only place where growth didn't materialize. The city's population is down 15 percent to 14,991, according to the U.S. Census. That means reduced state revenue-sharing dollars and federal block grant allocations. It adds to a bleak city financial picture already stressed by a nearly decade-old citywide redevelopment program that capped income to the general budget and sent new property tax revenue to finance redevelopment projects.
The city's Community Redevelopment Agency's budget is $2.2 million, with nearly all of it pledged to pay down debts from such things as buying the Hacienda and rebuilding the city swimming pool and gym into a popular recreation and aquatic center.
"It's essentially broke at this point,'' Schneiger said of the CRA.
By Oct. 1, 2012, the city's general fund will be subsidizing the CRA, Schneiger said, and tough budget decisions lie ahead considering 16 city employees – some police officers, code enforcement and development services staff – are on the CRA payroll.
The CRA finances are important considering the topic of Tuesday's meeting. The nearly two-hour-long conversation with 34 participants focused, by design, on law enforcement because of the attendance of Police Chief Jeff Harrington. People gathered in the second floor meeting room of the city library with a lot to say about vandalism, prescription drug abuse, neighborhood problems, marine patrols, crime watch efforts, traffic, pro-active policing and even animal control issues.
The core responsibility of the police department is answering calls for service, including investigating the 800 to 1,000 traffic accidents in the city each year. That detracts from regularly putting a police boat on the river or being able to patrol neighborhoods as a matter of routine.
A large transient population and home foreclosures add to the police workload. Updated demographic data are not yet available from the 2010 census, but there is little reason to be optimistic that the city's residential wealth improved from 10 years ago. Then, New Port Richey's population was poorer, less educated and less stable than their neighbors in the county. Back then, renters lived in more than a third of the city housing stock.
Following the lead of Pasco County and other municipal governments, the city is now pursuing a new ordinance creating a directory to better keep tabs on the nearly 800 homes that are in foreclosure proceedings, heading to auction or already owned by banks. The idea is to give code enforcement officers a new tool to fight potential blight. That is a significant challenge. Though the city has high profile pockets of affluence along the Pithlachascotee River, its residential communities are mostly modest. Making the city a more desirable place to own a home is imperative to its long-term economic vitality.
The river, the attractive downtown, and the favorable quality of life attributes offered by parks, recreation center and library make the city what it is today.
But people who want to live in the homes they own, who will invest in their neighborhoods and who will become the clientele for businesses the city hopes to attract downtown will make the city's future.