At first glance, voters might mistake the April 14 New Port Richey municipal election ballot as a contest among three incumbents seeking two City Council seats. It's not a completely inaccurate assumption.
Among them, Ginny Miller, Marilynn deChant and Judy DeBella Thomas have 14 years of service on the council and none has lost a city election. Miller, who served nine years, resigned in 2008 as part of an unsuccessful attempt at higher office. deChant has served two, two-year terms and last year Thomas won the seat vacated by Miller by seven votes. This year, the top two vote-getters will win three-year seats after a City Charter change lengthened the terms in office.
The challenges facing the city are familiar. It must try to maintain service while being squeezed by lower property values, voter-approved property tax exemptions and a recession that has reduced sales, gasoline and other tax revenue. Much of the downtown redevelopment remains dormant, though the city did complete the first phase of the Railroad Square beautification to create a pedestrian friendly area one block south of Main Street. Still, the large-scale projects like redeveloping the Hacienda Hotel and the former First Baptist Church property on Orange Lake are at a standstill. Most notably and most disappointingly, the private-public partnership between the city and the developer of the mixed-use Main Street Landing project needs resurrection.
Among the trio of candidates, Miller is best prepared for the job. As a past council member, she was supportive of Main Street Landing and voted two years ago to create a special taxing district to try to offset escalating infrastructure costs. The defeat of that proposal led to a shutdown of the project, which still has not been reversed. The result is a half-built, concrete-block shell where Main Street meets the Pithlachascotee River.
Miller, a middle school math teacher, also is most cognizant of the larger tasks ahead. During individual interviews, she was the only candidate to speak to the chore of redeveloping the current HCA Community Hospital site and surrounding neighborhood when the hospital relocates to Trinity, and she is acutely aware of the looming multimillion-dollar note payment — and the potential impact on the city's finances — that is due from the redevelopment fund.
The Times strongly recommends Ginny Miller for New Port Richey City Council.
The differences between deChant and Thomas are not as clear cut. Both profess to be downtown advocates. DeChant, a freelance publicist, was the original director of the community cooperative, the predecessor to Greater New Port Richey Main Street Inc. Thomas has been executive director of that nonprofit downtown development agency for the past eight years.
We are troubled by deChant's votes on some key issues, including her "no'' votes for the special taxing district for Main Street Landing and the design for Railroad Square. And, both she and Thomas acquiesced when briefed recently on the city manager's plan to double-dip by retiring for 30 days, collecting a lump sum payment, and then resuming his job duties.
Thomas, to her credit, is not as close-minded about the prospects for Main Street Landing. However, she has a greater fault that cannot be overlooked — her position with Main Street conflicts with her duties as City Council member. Two months after joining the council, Thomas' two jobs mingled and she incorrectly failed to recognize her compromised position. She acknowledges now that it was a mistake.
At the time, Thomas, as director of New Port Richey Main Street, filed an application to allow alcohol sales at a Main Street event then voted on the application as a council member. Later in the year, she took part in the discussions and voted with the majority during an emotional debate to expand special-event alcohol sales to Sims Park. Likewise, Thomas must vote on the city budget, which in past years, has included $59,000 in appropriations to the Main Street group, which employs both her and her husband.
The entanglements are too great for Thomas to overcome from the dais. Thomas' efforts to boost downtown commerce are best handled by her wearing the single hat of Main Street director. The Times recommends deChant.