Faced with a projected five-year, $17 million budget shortfall, an 11 percent decline in property values this year, no borrowing capacity, and a strong possibility the proposed tax rate for 2013 will approach or reach the state constitutional limit, the city of New Port Richey can no longer delay austerity measures.
Already, the city is proposing to eliminate 24 positions from the payroll, shutter its aquatic center for most of the year, cut subsidies to Greater New Port Richey Main Street Inc., and impose higher fees to pay for street lights and storm water drainage.
"Everything has to be looked at,'' said Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe.
Indeed. Then this city of 15,000 residents should get serious about its cost-cutting and also consider if it can continue its own municipal public safety departments — the two largest items in the general fund budget.
Under the city charter, such a controversial move requires voter approval. The general election is less than four months away so the city has an opportune time for a nonbinding referendum to determine if voters want to keep paying for their own police and fire departments or to merge with county agencies. Such a ballot question won't balance the budget due Oct. 1, but it certainly will help guide the city's long-term fiscal priorities.
The city's current tax rate is $8.38 per $1,000 of property value. A double-digit decline in real estate values, plus money due to the community redevelopment fund, has left the city with a nearly $500,000 drop in property tax revenue that is expected to be made up with a rollback tax rate of $9.43 per $1,000. City officials said Thursday they are considering proposing a state-capped tax rate of $10 per $1,000 with an eye toward reducing it before approving the new budget before Oct. 1.
Property taxes, however, are only part of the equation. Next week, the City Council also is scheduled to consider raising the annual storm water fee to $77 from $40 and the street light fee to $35 a year from $26. Combined, that's less than $1 per week in higher fees.
The council has little alternative. Currently, the costs of the two programs exceed the fee proceeds, leaving the city to subsidize each through the general fund or by tapping reserves. Storm water work, in particular, is expected to be more costly over the next five years as the city works under new federal clean water rules. It will require more inspections — and likely repairs — to a drainage system, parts of which date to the 1930s.
Declining wealth, failed real estate speculating by past councils and loan repayments stretching to 2022 for redevelopment borrowing means the city won't be climbing out of this financial abyss any time soon. Paying more for lights and drainage is necessary, but it also is just the start of trying to ensure long-term solvency for the city.