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Mayor of Zephyrhills shows leadership through hard choices

I've never been a fan of a key city charter provision in Zephyrhills. It's the caveat that allows for electing a mayor to a largely ceremonial role while five council members hash out and vote on the ordinances and spending to govern Pasco's second-largest city.

The council president, not the mayor, runs council meetings and signs the official documents requiring a signature. The mayor's post is a waste of a part-time salary even if the job does come with the never-been-used ability to veto a council-approved ordinance.

The goofy charter aside, I am warming to the idea of Mayor Cliff McDuffie as a public servant.

McDuffie, for the second time in his seven-year mayoral career, pulled out the veto threat earlier in the week and in doing so, elevated the level of public debate surrounding government spending, services and taxation. Monday evening, McDuffie, in prepared remarks, said he had planned to veto the property tax rate established by the council because it was too low.

Think about that for a second. In an era of local governments too often guided entirely by a no-new-taxes approach to balancing the budget, McDuffie not only supported a property tax increase, but did it while scolding the council for being short-sighted.

"Your chance to keep us on an fairly even keel was ignored as you elected, by a slim vote, to remain the same rate, very possibly costing someone here in our employment their job,'' McDuffie admonished.

It's one thing to acquiesce quietly, it's quite another to lead the parade publicly. McDuffie quite clearly chose the latter in announcing he wanted to veto the ordinance setting the proposed tax rate at $5.52 per $1,000 of property value. He backed off after learning from the state Department of Revenue and the city attorney that his action could trigger heavy financial penalties to the municipal government for missing state-mandated deadlines for setting, advertising and holding public hearings on a maximum tax rate.

McDuffie wanted a tax rate of $5.70, a modest increase of 3 percent, that would have cost someone with a $91,000 home an extra five bucks a year, or, as the mayor pointed out, the approximate price of a pack of cigarettes, a six-pack of beer or a Cuban or Subway sandwich. It would generate about $70,000 extra for a city staring at $446,000 in reduced property tax revenues due to falling real estate values. Its preferable to more cuts, possible layoffs and reduced capital spending, the mayor said.

McDuffie's statements, ironically, came the same evening the council delayed a decision on renovating its flood-damaged fire station on Sixth Avenue and debated the wisdom of retaining its own animal control officer, with cost considerations driving both discussions.

It is a frustrating exercise being repeated in city halls and government centers around Florida. What is the level of service people want and what can we afford to give them?

New Port Richey and Pasco County, for instance, both increased their proposed tax rates from the current year to stave off even more severe personnel reductions and service cuts, which brought a public plea from the West Pasco Board of Realtors, in a recent letter to this newspaper, to reverse the strategy.

Dade City kept its tax rate steady despite a $478,000 shortfall, then immediately talked of cutting jobs, city contributions to domestic violence and housing programs and its series of movies in the park for children.

The first time McDuffie threatened a veto was on a 2004 land-use issue. He received an immediate compromise from a developer who agreed to build homes on larger lots after the mayor said he would veto the annexation of the property into the city. There will be no such compromise available this time around. Zephyrhills must now push its budget forward with significantly less money available to it.

It no doubt pleases many. The Realtors, for instance, in seeking no tax increases, said "this is the time for quality leadership and we are confident we have that in place throughout Pasco County.''

No argument here, though I suspect we would diverge terribly on a definition for quality leadership.

Mayor of Zephyrhills shows leadership through hard choices 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 5:31am]

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