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Council's main worry not age, but money

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Senior citizens look at the New Port Richey Tourist and Shuffleboard Club and see a recreational and social outlet. Sixteen courts capable of tournament competition on the outside, and space for potluck suppers, bingo and line dancing inside.

New Port Richey looks at the shuffleboard club and sees an untapped asset. It is on city-owned land along Grand Boulevard in the heart of a refurbished downtown.

"Right at ground zero," said City Council member Virginia Miller.

By that, she means the vicinity where the city has spent $4-million on new sidewalks, lights, landscaping and park improvements in an effort to redevelop its sleepy, service-oriented downtown into a retailing district.

In this debate, the city chose the potential of shopping pedestrians over the permanency of shuffleboard players.

The club's lease expires this year. City Council voted last month not to renew it. The $10-per-month rent is paltry compared to the $180,000 the city believes it can obtain by selling the lot or a monthly rent of roughly $1,500 if it stays in the landlord business.

The club claims ageism. "What is the real motive of this City Council? That they want only the young and trendy in their downtown?" club President Betty Seydell wrote in a letter to the Times.

It is not age discrimination. It is economics.

The city's not-so-rosy finances include a tax base that took a more than $9-million hit when the non-profit Mease Morton Plant bought the former for-profit North Bay Hospital. That 1999 sale cost the city $88,000 annually, according to council member Tom Finn.

A new city police station, estimated to cost $1.5-million to build, is now expected to run more than $2-million, or a one-third increase.

City police and firefighters are lobbying against a plan to eliminate positions through attrition.

The council originally said it did not want to raise taxes. It backed away from that position in order to trim the personnel reductions. But it also needs to find a long-term solution since the fallback position of tapping undesignated reserves is no longer viable.

Hence the desire to turn city property into a moneymaker. To boost its economic outlook, the council last year created the new position of a redevelopment director. It was the first position targeted by friends of the police and firefighters as a more suitable place to cut in the coming budget year.

The suggestion is shortsighted. The city faces a budget crunch annually without an expanded tax base or increased revenue sources.

"It isn't going to go away," said Finn. "It's going to be back, worse, next year."

The bottom line isn't the only number that has caught the council's attention. Of the shuffleboard club's 192 members, it believes only 18 are city residents. In other words, a valuable city asset is benefitting a group of non-city residents.

It's difficult to justify increased property taxes and reductions in public safety to your constituents while a private group enjoys the benefit of a sweetheart deal.

"We've been nice guys for years with city resources," Miller noted.

The message this year: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

The club responded, but it's unfamiliarity with the city was noticeable five days ago on Election Day. Someone posted signs near the club, which doubles as a voting precinct, urging the electorate to vote out the existing council. One little problem. City elections are in April.

Likewise, some club members' cantankerous attitude displayed at the council's Aug. 15 meeting diminished city sympathy.

Club members now plan to picket in the coming week.

Here's an idea: How about choosing productivity over protesting? A majority of council members previously indicated a willingness to construct shuffleboard courts at the city's recreation center. The club also could lease space at the adjacent Claude Pepper Senior Center for meetings or social functions.

Club members shouldn't let that opportunity pass by. They also should recognize the financial situation of the city and scrap their ill-advised claims of age discrimination.

Consider the children. The city has yet to finance a proposed half-million-dollar water park at the city pool or build a skateboard park it pitched to the County Commission a year ago.

Ageism? Hardly. In New Port Richey, red ink has no age barriers.