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Tarpon residents keep hand on wheel

The day after voters turned down a referendum about buying and selling property, city officials said downtown redevelopment still will move forward but probably not as quickly as if the issue had passed.

A majority of voters _ 72 percent _ turned down an issue that would have allowed the City Commission, by a vote of at least 4-1, to buy or sell land without having to go to a referendum, as is now required.

With that authority, city officials said they would have been more likely to attract developers into the city because the process would have moved more quickly. Without that ability, some developers might go elsewhere, Mayor Frank DiDonato said.

"If a developer wants to do a project, is ready to go, (he) doesn't want a lot of red tape," DiDonato said. "It would be easier for them to pick up and go to Dunedin or Safety Harbor."

Some sales might not happen because the cost of holding the needed special referendum is $12,000 and will increase with new voting technology, he said.

The failure of the referendum item "certainly will leave us at a competitive disadvantage with other communities," City Manager Ellen Posivach said.

The city now will have to try to attract developers willing to use private funds to purchase private property within the redevelopment area, which runs between the Sponge Docks and Tarpon Avenue, she said. Developers interested in city-owned land will have to be willing to wait until a referendum can be held, she said.

"I think it is going to make it difficult but not impossible," Posivach said of the defeat of the issue in the Tuesday election.

Voters also turned down a repeal of term limits; an issue that would have required at least a 4-1 commission vote to hire and fire a city manager; an item that would have allowed nonresidents to serve on some city boards; and whether leases of more than five years and contracts could be approved by at least a 4-1 commission vote instead of a voter referendum.

Voters approved just one issue, allowing the city to buy a vacant lot at Spring Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive with about $5,000 in impact fees.

Opponents of the referendum items said voters left no doubt about their feelings on the issues.

"In general they (would have) weakened the structure of the city a little bit," resident Sam Mack, a retired engineer, said of the referendum issues.

Residents didn't want to give up control on certain issues to the commission, even if they like the current commissioners, he said.

"I think most commissioners are pretty honest. They probably have good intentions, but I don't know if they always think far enough ahead," Mack said.

The issue about buying and selling property might have passed if the referendum had included a price limit for transactions and other safeguards, said Charlie Phillips, vice chairman of the Friends Advising Citizens on the Charter of Tarpon Springs, a political group formed to oppose the first five referendum issues.

"They went in without the proper ordinance. They should have come in with a cap and some kind of plan to have appraisals," said Phillips, a real estate agent and former executive director of the Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce. If that had been done, he said, he may have supported the issue.

DiDonato said commissioners might try to bring back the land issue in the future, with some safeguards built into the referendum. He doesn't expect the other issues to show up on a ballot any time soon, including a repeal of the city's two-term limit, which was turned down by 77 percent of voters in 2000 and by 72 percent of voters this year.

The city probably could have done a better job of explaining the land issue to voters, he said, and he pointed out that the city never intended to spend taxpayers' money with abandon.

In the meantime, he said, the city will have to find a way to move forward with redevelopment without the flexibility the referendum's passage would have provided.

"I don't want the public to think we can't get things done. We can," DiDonato said. "It'll just be more difficult."

_ Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazellasptimes.com.

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