A Port Richey City Council majority wisely said bon voyage to the notion of charging people to board commercial boats docking within the city. On a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Richard Rober correctly reversing his earlier support, the council killed a draft ordinance to charge $7.50 for each passenger boarding gambling or sightseeing boats docking at privately owned land along the waterfront. A suggestion to target the fee at boats holding at least 50 passengers meant the proposal was aimed exclusively at Port Richey Casino, the offshore casino that shuttles its passengers from its own dock within the city.
Conspiracy theorists suggest the proposal, put forth by Vice Mayor Mark Hashim, was intended only to anger the waterfront business community to build support for a potential referendum disbanding the city government. Hashim proposed the boarding fee in late November, saying it would help finance waterfront development, capital spending and the dredging of residential canals.
Whatever the motivation, it was an ill-advised proposal that faced a promised, and likely successful, legal challenge if the council had approved it. In a letter to the city, Port Richey Casino's legal counsel noted correctly that the city did not have the statutory authority from the Legislature to impose such a tax.
The Port Richey City Council does have other avenues to pursue if it is sincere in seeking to promote waterfront redevelopment and to add revenue to help the city pay its bills. For starters, it should reverse its previous decision to rescind the utility franchise fee, which cut $264,000 from the city budget this year. Council member Phil Abts said he is open to the idea of reinstituting the fee on utilities for using city rights of way, the cost of which is passed along in customers' bills. It's more logical than trying to gouge patrons of the casino boat.
Secondly, and more importantly, the city should become serious about encouraging redevelopment of its waterfront. The council should dust off a master plan first presented nearly 11 years ago and the ensuing overlay district that was adopted in 2002.
The plan detailed a potential for hotels and shops connected by a boardwalk and included passive recreation, residential development, museums, a bed and breakfast, a sports rental complex and centralized parking. Except for some work on the city parks, little has been accomplished. What was presumed to be an ideal spot for a parking garage at Grand Boulevard and U.S. 19 became a gas station and convenience store. Meanwhile, motel development is flourishing along U.S. 19 outside the city limits.
Just two years ago, a different council considered an overlay district to guide development in a smaller area along the northern shore of the Pithlachascotee River on the east side of U.S. 19. Again, no concrete activity followed.
Port Richey's redevelopment has bumbled along for more than a half-dozen years, with acquisition of a dilapidated trailer park and still-pending applications for dredging permits being the most noteworthy expenditures. Dredging should be financed by the residential property owners who stand to benefit.
Genuine redevelopment means encouraging businesses to locate within Port Richey and to partner with the city to remove blight, improve housing and commercial building stock and to bolster the tax base. Trying to chase business away with what would have been an illegal boarding fee does just the opposite.