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Bowen: Wasting time in Pasco city's election?

Peter Altman was re-elected to the New Port Richey City Council on Tuesday. [ROBERT NAPPER  |  Special to the Times]
Peter Altman was re-elected to the New Port Richey City Council on Tuesday. [ROBERT NAPPER | Special to the Times]
Published Apr. 12, 2018

The woman approached, sporting a campaign button for New Port Richey City Council candidate Joan Hook.

"I have a question,'' she asked at the conclusion of the March 26 candidate forum where I served as moderator. "Who wrote the questions?''

I did.

That first question, she said, was "a complete waste of time.''

Apparently a public dialogue about an issue beyond downtown parking is too disagreeable.

For the record, the initial inquiry to the six of seven New Port Richey candidates in attendance went like this:

The biggest public debate nationally is over gun control. Shortly after the slaying of 17 at a high school in Parkland, a Hillsborough County Commissioner proposed banning assault-style firearms in Hillsborough. Others want to require background checks at firearms shows, closing the so-called gun-show loophole. Regardless of what the state law says, if you are elected to City Council, what do you view as your role in this national debate and do you believe local rules should be instituted?

A complete waste of time?

Not if you're hoping somebody will step forward and demonstrate leadership.

You know, like the eight mayors in South Florida who filed suit against Gov. Rick Scott and state officials to strike down the 2011 Florida law that says local governments cannot enact their own gun-control ordinances.

For the most part, the New Port Richey candidates flummoxed their way through extemporaneous answers. Some cited a need for better mental health, and they endorsed background checks and raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21.

The issue touched one candidate more than others, however. Former mayor and county commissioner Peter Altman, seeking to return to elected office after 14 years, talked about losing his 17-year-old grandson to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The teenager knew gun safety, Altman said, but he did not know self control.

"We just have too much fire power in our world right now. I would do anything I could to control that,'' Altman said.

A complete waste of time?

Not if you consider the public purse.

Maybe if you are a newly elected City Council member, you will be asked to spend public money on school safety measures approved by a Legislature that answered gun violence in schools by allowing more guns in schools.

The state mandated armed security in schools. In the city of New Port Richey, only Richey Elementary is not staffed full-time by a school resource officer, also known as an SRO.

In the city, hiring a new police officer typically costs $70,000 for salary and benefits, although a school resource officer usually is more experienced and likely would carry an $85,000 personnel cost.

For this exercise, we'll stick with the salary for a first-year officer. Under its contract with the Pasco School District, the city pays 40 percent of an SRO's salary. In this case, that is $28,000, with the district picking up the remainder. A uniform, gun, holster and other gear runs $8,000, and a fully equipped vehicle is $45,000. The city pays 100 percent of those expenses.

Under this scenario, the actions by the state Legislature and governor will bring an $81,000 unfunded mandate to the city to add an officer for Richey Elementary. Police Chief Kim Bogart said he would seek City Council approval to amend his budget to add a new position if no other dollars become available.

For comparison sake, we should note the City Council debated long and hard last year about including $15,000 in the budget for New Port Richey Main Street Inc. At that rate, the city's new school resource officer absorbs five years worth of Main Street funding.

A complete waste of time?

Not if you think about your children.

Consider the task facing the Pasco School District, which has 37 school resource officers and would need to add 47 to staff every school. The district estimated its cost at $5.2 million, but received $3.5 million from the state.

That's a $1.7 million shortfall. Keep that in mind if your child's field trip gets cancelled or teachers start begging for classroom supplies or you are witness to the other typical belt-tightening measures around cash-starved schools.

A complete waste of time?

By trying to encourage a public dialogue on an issue that encompasses public safety, municipal finances and education? Not to me.

Tuesday, voters elected Altman and Matt Murphy to fill open seats on the City Council. I hope it's not a waste of their time, either.

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2