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Put Port Richey's future on ballot

For the third time in a dozen years, some Port Richey residents are calling for a referendum to disband the city.

This time, the idea smacks of a knee-jerk reaction to the unfortunate termination of City Manager Richard Reade. He was let go in December by a council majority which did not give him an evaluation before showing him the door after a year of service.

While it is easy to suggest this city of 1,900 registered voters is incapable of competent self-governing, the referendum should be considered for far more substantial reasons. Much has happened since voters weighed in on the issue in a 2007 straw ballot that was skewed by its language affixing a $250,000 price tag to investigating dissolution.

Nine months later, voters statewide approved an amendment to Florida's Constitution granting greater property tax exemptions to homeowners, but limiting local governments' ability to maintain the same level of services. Voters should consider if Port Richey can afford to continue its municipal government, particularly with questions about the propriety of past redevelopment spending.

The ballot in 1997 asked voters to consider merging with New Port Richey. Two years ago, the ballot included the quarter-million-dollar question that effectively turned it into a push poll. Both are irrelevant in 2009. Voters should be allowed to consider, in an unbiased manner, the question of dissolving the city and being absorbed into unincorporated Pasco County.

Toward that end, it would be a mistake to try to slap this question on the April city election ballot. In less than five weeks, the city must develop accurate and impartial ballot language, write an ordinance, schedule public hearings and schedule a council vote by the time the municipal candidate qualifying period ends at noon Feb. 17. Advocates would be wise to seek a place on the 2010 ballot, perhaps even the August primary, to ensure a thoughtful and thorough public debate on such a highly emotional issue.

There is much for the public to consider. Abolishing the city means a tax savings — though not as much as in past years because of a falling city property tax rate, higher exemptions and the repeal of the utility franchise fee. It will bring greater efficiencies and avoid duplication of services, but means losing the Port Richey Police and other small-town departments.

It would throw further into limbo a long-planned, but still not financed, dredging of residential canals. It could spur waterfront development because of the county's ability to guide an overlay district along the Pithlachascotee River that the city has been unable to advance, but also ends local control over redevelopment.

It also would bring stability to an area that is in near-constant political turmoil and has been governed at times by individuals who put self-interests above the public's interest.

The council should accept the referendum request if it complies with past standards, most notably signatures from 10 percent of the city voters, which must be verified by the office of the Supervisor of Elections. We trust a council majority won't think up new roadblocks along the way.

At least one key council member is open to the idea of the referendum, even though he isn't likely to support it unless an unrelated boat-passenger tax is approved.

Council member Phil Abts, who provided the swing vote to fire Reade, said Thursday he will proceed as if the city government will remain in place, but intends to allow the referendum if the appropriate petition signatures are presented to the council.

"I will allow any person to vote on any idea they want to bring to the table if that's what the citizens want,'' said Abts. "If I say 'no' then I'm taking the voice of the people away.''

It's logical thinking worthy of being shared by the rest of the council.

Put Port Richey's future on ballot 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:32pm]
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