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Port Richey council okays publicity blitz on merger proposal

City Council members say their residents are not getting all the facts on the proposed merger with New Port Richey.

So they have decided to launch a major publicity campaign to counter what they describe as "inaccurate and biased" information about the proposed merger.

The council gave City Manager Vince Lupo the green light to coordinate the campaign with City Attorney Paul Marino and the Tampa law firm of Fowler, White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal and Banker.

The campaign would entail the printing of brochures, newspaper and radio advertisements, appearances on local talk shows and meetings with community groups, among other things. It is uncertain what the campaign would cost.

"We're obviously confronted with a massive amount of misinformation that has been hoisted on this community," Lupo said. "It's essential that our taxpayers have the opportunity to hear the facts."

The facts, according to Lupo and other city officials, are that Port Richey residents would be hurt financially by a merger with New Port Richey.

And Tuesday night their claims were backed up by Seth Mills, an attorney with Fowler, White.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, has introduced legislation to merge the two cities if voters in each city approved in separate referendums, scheduled for September.

Mills described as "poppycock" the claim that most Port Richey residents would save money if New Port Richey annexed Port Richey.

He was referring to a recent report in the Times that said most Port Richey residents would save about $220 a year due to New Port Richey's substantially lower water and sewer rates. New Port Richey Mayor Peter Altman has said his city could absorb Port Richey's debts without affecting existing utility rates.

But Mills said Port Richey residents would not experience lower water and sewer rates, because the city's utility debt could not legally be passed on to New Port Richey residents. That legal point, though, was disputed by a political science professor quoted in the Times story.

Mills cited a provision in the Florida Constitution that says that when cities consolidate, "pre-existing debt" cannot be extended outside the service area for which the debt was incurred. Port Richey is paying a $2.7-million bond debt on its recently expanded water system.

"There will be no tax savings by this pre-existing debt," he said.

It's uncertain what the city's publicity campaign would cost.

Council member Ann Lennon suggested a spending cap. Lupo first suggested $25,000, then $75,000.

"It's going to be a furious, mad push to get this information to the electorate," he said.

In the end, the council voted 4-1 in favor of the campaign without specifying a limit. Lupo said he would prepare an estimate for the next council meeting. Mayor James Carter cast the dissenting vote.

Carter said money would be better spent after the April 8 election, when Port Richey voters will be asked whether they favor merging with New Port Richey.

"I don't want to give somebody a blank check and say do something," he said.