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Port Richey pursues grant to buy land

By this time next year, the city could be closing a deal to buy 7.5 acres of undeveloped waterfront property on Miller's Bayou.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to pursue a state grant for as much as $2.1-million from the Florida Communities Trust, a government program that helps cities acquire land for conservation.

Greg Chelius, a project manager with a non-profit nationwide group called the Trust for Public Land, made the presentation encouraging the purchase of the Grey Pointe property. His group's primary function is to act as a liaison between governments and landowners, he said.

"There's no guarantees (of getting the grant), but we'll do our best," Chelius said after the decision was made. "We think you (are) a real good candidate."

Port Richey Mayor James Carter met with Chelius and Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher earlier this month to discuss the proposal. The county has the funds to develop and maintain the potential park site but not to purchase the land itself, Chelius explained.

Port Richey is being offered the opportunity to try for the grant because the Florida Communities Trust recently has begun to reserve about $20-million for cities its size, he said.

"Florida Communities Trust realized that the somewhat smaller municipalities were not getting their fair share," he said. "In fact, they weren't getting any. They didn't have the staff or the resources to spend the time to put together the applications . . .

"So (Florida Communities Trust) decided to set aside a certain portion of that money to be dedicated to governments with less than 10,000 people."

The deadline for the grant application is Aug. 16 and the review process will be completed about four months after that, Chelius said.

Council member Michael Winton wanted to know if Chelius had seen an appraisal of the Grey Pointe property and how much it would cost. Chelius said he had not seen the appraisal but understood the amount to be about $1.3-million.

In other council action, Carter asked that former city utilities manager Gary Deremer be hired as a consultant who would report directly to the council. Carter said he was concerned about "unauthorized and unqualified people in our utilities department," and was unsatisfied with the information he received from City Manager Max Pope.

Winton moved to put off the issue until Pope, who was not at Tuesday's meeting, returned from vacation. Council member Fred Miller seconded the motion, but it was defeated 3-2.

"We need to protect our utilities department now," Carter said. "It doesn't have time to wait and go on with the problems we have." He noted apparent discrepancies in the salary structures of several utilities employees, including current manager David Thurston.

"I wouldn't care whether the city manager is here or not," Carter continued. "This is the council's problem."

Winton disagreed. "Mayor, I understand where you're coming from, and I don't want to appear to be arguing with you, but we're coming at this the wrong way," he said. "We're not the bosses of the employees any more." Hiring and firing should be the purview of the city manager, he said.

Ultimately, council member Eileen Ferdinand suggested that the decision wait until City Attorney Paul Marino, who also was absent, could review Deremer's proposed consultant's contract. The council voted 5-0 to return to the issue at the next regular meeting on July 11.

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