The Dade City Commission needs to make good on its promises. Tuesday night, the commission pledged to turn a scruffy ball field in the largely African-American Mickens-Harper neighborhood into a more utilized community asset with the potential for a pavilion, barbecue grills and a lighted baseball diamond. There also will be odor controls added to the adjoining sewage treatment plant and landscaping and other beautification to help hide a large water storage tank.
The park upgrades are necessary tradeoffs for a city government that failed to fully consider how an economic decision nearly three years ago could impact the quality of life of today's neighborhood residents. In this case, the commission decided in January 2009 on a plan to refurbish its aging sewage treatment system and picked the least costly alternative. The motivation was to suppress the size of a rate increase to help pay for the improvements.
While the focus in 2009 was dollars and cents, the commission was short on common sense. It was remiss in not properly vetting the location of a portion of the new facility — the neighborhood park next to the plant. Commissioners can try to claim ignorance now but the 2009 plan they approved unanimously clearly states "expansion of the existing plant onto the land currently occupied by the ball field.''
Trying to portray the city manager as nefarious or the mayor as a financial opportunist — as the husband of Commissioner Camille Hernandez did during an angry and irrational diatribe after Tuesday's vote — is intellectually dishonest and an attempt to divert blame from the commission's own lack of due diligence.
Hernandez and the rest of the commission (except Bill Dennis who was not in office at the time) acted in 2009 in what they thought was the city's best interests. Tuesday night, Dennis, Mayor Scott Black and Commissioner Curtis Beebe did so again.
Rather than redesigning the sewage system upgrade — bringing with it new and higher costs — the majority agreed to move a 34-foot-tall storage tank off the ball field to just past the center field fence. Keeping the 2 million gallon tank on the treatment plant property was key to retaining a state grant of up to $1.9 million to cover half of the construction costs.
While neighborhood residents were correctly upset about the lack of communication from the city, their suggested alternatives were simply too costly or impractical. The city is not in the financial position to rebuild its entire sewage treatment plant on some other site outside the neighborhood. And nobody volunteered to pay higher water and sewer rates to offset the expense.
The focus now should be on improving the park and the aesthetics of buffering the tank. Community residents need to offer their ideas on exactly what amenities they would like included. The revenue-challenged city, meanwhile, should begin searching for financing of both the capital costs of a better park and the eventual ongoing expense of maintaining it. Reserve accounts, federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding and future Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue are potential sources for the construction outlay.
It is imperative for the city to keep its pledge to the Mickens-Harper residents. The alternative is unacceptable. The Dade City government should be as attentive to bettering that neighborhood park as it is to rebuilding its own city hall.