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Bowen: Buyer's remorse replaces sticker shock in New Port Richey

Published Dec. 7, 2016

The sticker shock didn't stick.

The city of New Port Richey is again considering a multimillion-dollar renovation of its now 9-year-old recreation and aquatic center. The original price to move and expand the fitness center, add child care space and meeting rooms, redesign the drop-off point and other changes came to $2.2 million.

Council members gulped at that price back in 2015 and whittled it to $1.7 million.

A year later, they've got buyer's remorse for not buying enough.

The council now is considering going back to Plan A, even though the expected price is increasing because of higher construction costs.

"Do we spend the extra dollars now to do this right, or do we do it cheaply and kick ourselves down the road?'' Mayor Rob Marlowe said.

Marlowe noted that the original cost savings from a decade ago trimmed the size of the planned swimming pool, which now prohibits the center from playing host to competitive swimming events.

The guy most alarmed about this proposal is council member Chopper Davis. He pointed to the price of at least $2.2 million and the number of recreation center memberships sold to city residents — roughly 250.

"Why don't we just give them each $10,000?'' he deadpanned.

Nothing has been finalized, but the funding source is expected to be Penny for Pasco sales tax dollars.

The council resurrected the full-blown renovation plan at a late-September work session after hearing accolades about the $3 million Sims Park renovations. At the workshop, nobody from the public spoke either pro or con. Maybe they were still hoarse. A month earlier they had a lot to say.

In late August, more than 150 people turned out objecting to a proposal for a new, citywide paving assessment. The plan called for an $85-a-year charge per single-family residence to finance street pavings for the next two decades.

The council retreated amid lots of admissions that the city had done a poor job of explaining the thing and why the current system of using gas tax dollars and neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessments wasn't working. (Too few dollars in the pot because too many people weren't paying the assessments back quickly enough.)

Davis looks at recreation and at the roads and wonders about the city's priorities. He advocates for a slimmed-down version of the recreation center expansion and thinks the city should plug the Penny for Pasco dollars into city streets.

It might take 150 vocal people at a council meeting for that idea to gain traction.

Regardless, Penny for Pasco is for the bricks and mortar stuff. Not salaries or other overhead. And, that essentially is the current problem with the city's recreation center. The price of running it has gone up, but the incoming revenue has not. Two-thirds of the $1.25 million budget comes from a general fund subsidy.

Let's remember this place isn't a dump in need of a total rebuild. This is a $14 million state-of-the-art recreation and aquatic center that opened in 2007. It has four pools, two gymnasiums, a fitness center, dance studio and skate park.

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A more imperative point also might have escaped some memories. That $14 million price tag was 55 percent higher than originally projected. When they started planning this thing, the price tag was listed at $9.1 million.

But apparently, $14 million doesn't get you everything. It came without state-of-the- art computer software. It's being replaced so the city has a better idea on the demographics of its users, can improve billing options, manage employee time and other functions. The price to join also is dropping, and the city says it will do a better job of marketing, too.

Still, even if everything goes according to the three-year plan, a consultant projected the city could increase its memberships from 1.4 percent of the people living within a 10-minute drive of the recreation center to 1.9 percent.

Which means the annual subsidy from the general fund could drop from $831,482 to just under $600,000 by Year 3.

So after all the consulting, this could mean a $233,000 improvement in the bottom line. Yet, some in the city are poised to spend nearly 10 times that amount on the renovations.

Don't get the wrong idea. I like parks, recreation, libraries. Those are the fun things government provides to raise our collective quality of life. It's certainly more pleasant to take a stroll along the riverwalk, relax on a Sims Park bench or play a game of pickleball than to deal with drainage, sign permits or a shopping cart control ordinance.

The council has focused on the recreation center's red ink. But, as noted above, it also has been boosted by the public reception to the Sims Park improvements, which cost more than originally projected. It's why a majority said at a workshop that they are open to the idea of doing all of the recreation center renovations at more than the original price tag.

The comparison to Sims Park seems tenuous, though, when talking about public use. A trip to the downtown park and its splash pads, playground and other amenities is free. A trip to the recreation center is not.

That might be the best marketing tool the city can have.

Visit Sims Park. No sticker shock required.

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