New Port Richey City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas has correctly resigned from her full-time job as the appointed director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street Inc., deciding the fate of the downtown promotion agency superseded her own pocketbook.
The move made Thomas free to break a 2-2 vote to grant the group $30,000 for the coming year. Her actions guarantee at least one more year of public funding for Main Street, which now must find a new executive director to continue its efforts at promoting downtown.
The abrupt and hardball politics of council members Ginny Miller and Bob Langford, who opposed the Main Street funding, left the council deadlocked last month and left Thomas with no real alternative. Retaining both positions continued the stalemate and likely meant an end to or a significant reduction of the activities of the Main Street organization. Had she opted instead to resign from the council that would not have guaranteed an immediate end to the impasse nor an outcome favorable to Main Street.
Frankly, though, Thomas should have seen this problem coming. We expressed our fears about the conflicting interests when Thomas successfully ran for council in 2008 and again a year later. Thomas countered that she only would be prohibited from voting on Main Street's funding or "less than one-half of 1 percent'' of the council's annual business. But two months after her election, Thomas acted inappropriately when she cast a vote for a Main Street alcohol application that she herself had filed.
Even if you buy Thomas' contention of only a tiny percentage of council business being tied to Main Street, she failed to recognize the group's bottom line and its very existence is tied to council authority.
Greater New Port Richey Main Street operates under the Florida Main Street mission that calls for a four-pronged approach to downtown improvements: community organizing, promotions, design standards and economic restructuring. But the most high-profile work is the five events New Port Richey Main Street puts on annually to draw visitors downtown.
Its city subsidies peaked at nearly $75,000 in 2005, but have been declining since. Two years ago, a refinanced bond included a covenant precluding the utilities budget from paying for non-utility costs. Historically, the utilities fund included $40,000 for events marketing, of which Main Street received about $14,000.
Now, the Main Street appropriation is an exclusive line item in the Community Redevelopment Agency budget, a fund facing severe constraints because of looming debt payments and shrinking income attributed to falling property values.
The contract approved Tuesday night cut the appropriation by 25 percent to $30,000 and spelled out a minimum reduction of $5,000 in 2011-2012 with potentially no funding at all. We will repeat our suggestion that the council attempt a multiyear plan to wean the group from city subsidies. It would allow Greater New Port Richey Main Street time to ramp up its own fundraising, cut its overhead or scale back its event schedule.
Without a graduated formula in place, Main Street faces a difficult future and raises an important question from potential executive director applicants: Is this just a temporary position?