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Tarpon leaders want land rule changed

When City Commissioners got an enticing offer this summer for a piece of land just perfect for a new T-ball field, they were eager to close the deal.

But because of Tarpon Springs' charter, the elected officials first need permission from voters to buy the land.

Luckily for T-ballers, the Sisler Field land deal can wait until the November election. Voters will decide then if they want to buy the land for a price that wouldn't exceed $60,000. But city leaders fear that in the future, the arduous land-purchase process could become a ball and chain that hinders redevelopment in Tarpon Springs.

Under today's rules, voter approval is required for all land purchases, except when the property is needed for streets and other infrastructure. That forces the city to wait to buy land until the next scheduled election. Or it forces officials to pay for a special election.

"Currently there are other people buying and selling and determining what is going to happen in certain neighborhoods, with the city having no say," said former Mayor Frank DiDonato, who chaired the seven-member committee that just completed a review of the city's charter.

On Tuesday night DiDonato presented the City Commission with the committee's recommendations. The Charter Review Committee's main recommendations would:

+ Allow city commissioners to buy land costing less than $250,000 as long as at least four of the five commissioners approve the purchase.

+ Give the city manager the authority to spend up to $25,000 on general budgeted goods and $100,000 on goods and services during an emergency without going out for bid. Currently, that authority is capped at $10,000 for general goods and $50,000 during emergencies.

+ Delete the job description for the city's internal auditor from the charter so that the commission that define that position's duties.

Other suggested changes include clarifying language and omitting redundant words and sentences.

Every five years commissioners appoint a team of residents to take a hard look at the city charter. The committee recommends changes to the charter and city residents vote on the suggestions in an upcoming election.

This go-round, the Charter Review Committee met 11 times and interviewed department heads, the city manager and the commissioners to talk about what charter changes could help.

On Tuesday, the City Commission spent more than an hour poring over the committee's recommendations, spending much of that time discussing the property-purchasing power.

Commissioners Peter Nehr and Peter Dalacos both questioned the $250,000 figure, and suggested the number be lowered to the $100,000 to $150,000 range.

Nehr wondered whether voters, who have rejected similar proposals in the past, would agree to that figure. In 1995 about 56 percent of voters upheld the idea of requiring voter approval to buy property.

In 2002, 72 percent of voters 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.

DiDonato said the committee selected the $250,000 figure based on property values in the city, and said the public's interest would be safeguarded by requiring a super majority _ at least four of the commission's five votes _ to pass a sale.

By early December, the City Commission will have worked out and submitted ballot language for the March election, when residents will approve or deny the changes.

Nora Koch can be reached at (727) 771-4304 or