The pending vacancy in the New Port Richey police chief's office presents an opportune time for City Council to take stock of its municipal services. Chief James Steffens resignation to join the Pasco Sheriff's Office leaves the city seeking its third police chief in less than three years. Rather than advertising for a leader, as Mayor Bob Consalvo suggested, the city should consider if it needs a facilitator — someone who can take an unbiased look at the city's public safety departments and determine their role in a local government that vacillates between financial stress and rosy optimism.
It's easy to confuse New Port Richey's short- and long-term solvency. Its current budget, approved in late September, eliminated 10 jobs from the payroll and included a 14 percent increase in the property tax rate and higher fees for stormwater and street lights. Despite the belt-tightening, the city said it still faced a $9 million five-year deficit (down from a projected $17 million) attributed to previous borrowing for community redevelopment.
The austerity was short-lived. Last week, less than halfway through the fiscal year, the council agreed to expand the payroll by close to $100,000 by adding three new full-time and three part-time positions as well as changing two current part-time roles into full-time jobs. The brighter financial outlook comes from an outside audit that determined the city may be able to transfer approximately $1 million in its utilities fund to general city operations.
Amid this short-term windfall, however, should come a thorough public debate of the city's long-term finances, particularly for its most expensive services — public safety. Shared services is not a new idea. Already, the city ended its contract with Pasco Animal Services and asked its Police Department to double as animal control officers. It joined its SWAT team to the Pasco unit, discussed combining emergency dispatch operations with the county and relies on the Sheriff's Office for assistance with forensics and narcotics investigations.
Elsewhere, the Dade City successfully folded its fire department into the county operation as a cost-savings maneuver 10 years ago and the tiny towns of San Antonio and St. Leo contract with the Sheriff's Office for enhanced law enforcement.
A thorough vetting of whether to merge New Port Richey's police and fire operations with their county counterparts would need to consider concrete data on response times, the value of fixed assets, personnel costs including pension commitments, and revenue (the city has red-light cameras overseen by its police department). Such a debate also must take into account the intangibles of public perception and municipal identity.
Under the New Port Richey charter, a public referendum is required on the issue of ending local public safety departments. It's too late to ask the question on the upcoming April 9 ballot in which two council seats will be decided. However, the incoming council shouldn't waste the opportunity for a substantial study of its government services and they should be prepared to ask voters their opinions in the 2014 election cycle.