Port Richey should abandon ship on its plan to charge tourists for boarding private boats from private property inside the city limits. Last week, the City Council voted 3-2 to draft an ordinance allowing the city to charge $7.50 for each passenger boarding gambling or sightseeing boats docking at privately owned land along the waterfront. It is an ill-conceived money grab by the city reminiscent of the time a former city manager and mayor attempted unsuccessfully to solicit a $2 per person port fee from the SunCruz gambling boats that dock in Port Richey.
The intent this time, according to Vice Mayor Mark Hashim, is to use the boarding fee as a way to stimulate redevelopment of the waterfront. How? By driving away business? That is the likely fallout if the fee is adopted. The owner of a sightseeing tour boat told Times staff writer Camille C. Spencer he will depart permanently if the council approves the fee.
A passenger boarding fee would be more palatable if the proceeds were intended to finance a municipal port, public dock or some other city-owned facility tied to the waterfront commerce. That is not the case.
Instead, 90 percent of the collections will stay with the municipal government, potentially earmarked for redevelopment, dredging or capital spending. Ten percent of the proceeds will be returned to the business owners for improvements to their own property.
Frankly, waterfront property owners motivated to spruce up their holdings don't need the city to act as a middleman to finance the repairs. The landowners can raise their own prices to cover the costs if they see fit.
More to the point, the city already has a financing tool in place to upgrade its waterfront: the Community Redevelopment Agency. Port Richey declared itself blighted in 2002 and so far has received more than $3-million in county tax revenue for redevelopment. Today, Pasco commissioners are scheduled to approve the 2009 disbursement to Port Richey, totaling nearly $760,000. That pot of money is supposed to be used for the type of redevelopment work Hashim envisions: streets, lighting, drainage and other improvements intended to boost private- sector investment in an area. Trying to add to the kitty without a suitable redevelopment plan and cost estimate is premature.
Using the boarding fee to finance the yet-to-be-approved dredging of 29 canals also fails to pass muster. Many of the property owners benefiting from such dredging are private homeowners on canal-front lots. A more appropriate method of paying for the dredging is to establish a special taxing district on the city's west side.
Hashim also told reporter Spencer the money could be used for traditional capital spending such as vehicles for the public works department. That line of thinking is understandable given the budget constraints from additional property tax exemptions approved by voters in January and the expected drop in assessed valuations next budget year.
Trying to find new revenue for the city is a recognition that Port Richey cannot maintain adequate services while it continues to cut its budget. Such a recognition, however, would have been more timely had it come over the summer, before the council majority eliminated its utility franchise fee, and $264,000 in annual revenue.