Did Port Richey turn a corner just to get mugged by legislator?

The showdown between state Rep. Amber Mariano and Port Richey residents is headed to the annual Pasco delegation hearing | C.T. Bowen
State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, and Port Richey City Manager Vince Lupo
State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, and Port Richey City Manager Vince Lupo [ Times ]
Published Oct. 9, 2019|Updated Oct. 9, 2019

PORT RICHEY — Amber Mariano was 15 months old the last time Pasco’s state legislators considered folding the city of Port Richey. It didn’t go well for the legislators.

Mariano, the Republican state representative from Hudson, turns 24 next week. She could be in for a memorable birthday if the episode repeats.

In 1997, state Sen. Jack Latvala wanted Port Richey to merge with the neighboring city of New Port Richey. He, at least, pushed for a public referendum on the question.

But before Port Richey voters weighed in at the ballot box — 3-1 in favor of remaining their own city — they weighed in during an acrimonious legislative delegation meeting. The following November, the House sponsor, Rep. Debra Prewitt, a Democrat, lost the city of Port Richey by 20 votes and lost her re-election bid by a 13-vote margin.

In 2019, Mariano’s district includes the city of Port Richey. Last week, she dropped the bombshell that she and Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, plan to introduce legislation to revoke Port Richey’s charter. It would require Pasco County to take over governance, plus the debts and assets, of the coastal city of less than 3,000 people.

The proposal will be heard at the annual legislative delegation meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday at Pasco-Hernando State College’s performing arts center on its New Port Richey campus.

Among Port Richey residents, one of their biggest gripes is heavy-handedness. Mariano doesn’t think city voters should consider the proposed dissolution in a referendum. She says the decision should be made in Tallahassee. She also didn’t confer with city officials before announcing her intentions.

However, it’s now clear from interviews and public records that Pasco County government officials, county commissioners, Sheriff Chris Nocco and even the state cops at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had been notified in some fashion of the Mariano-Hooper plan to file the bill.

“It’s ugly. It’s a political stunt to usurp the demonstrated will of the people,’’ said Port Richey City Manager Vince Lupo.

There has been a lot of ugliness in Port Richey this year. The former mayor, Dale Massad, is jailed on charges of practicing medicine without a license and second-degree attempted murder after he was accused in February of firing two shots at officers serving a warrant at his Port Richey home. Later, both Massad and his successor, acting Mayor Terrence Rowe, were charged with obstruction of justice and conspiring to intimidate a witness. A jury found Massad guilty of those two charges. Rowe’s case is pending.

Then there was the tomfoolery of not being able to name a replacement after Massad resigned because of the political shenanigans of Massad’s pal, Port Richey City Council member Richard Bloom. But Rowe resigned eventually, and voters rejected Bloom’s mayoral candidacy in a special election. The new five-member council includes a former prosecutor as mayor, Scott Tremblay, along with Todd Maklary and Tom Kinsella.

It’s why critics call Mariano’s bill ill-timed. She announced it less than three weeks after voters elected Maklary and Kinsella to the council.

Poorly timed might be the kindest thing Port Richey officials say about the Mariano bill. They suspect the classified advertisement in the Sept. 29 Tampa Bay Times vaguely announcing the legislation fails to meet the legal requirements for public notice. They contend Mariano went fishing for a reason to shut down the city and made unfounded allegations to the FDLE about an inappropriate bond issue and misspent redevelopment dollars. They charge that she’s acting at the behest of her father, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who they believe covets the city’s waterfront district and wants it under county control.

Keep up with all things Pasco County

Keep up with all things Pasco County

Subscribe to our free Pasco Times newsletter

You’ll get the latest Pasco County community news every Saturday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The city put out two press releases and gathered reporters for a City Hall news conference just to make sure they got their message out.

Both Marianos deny the city’s allegations, and Rep. Mariano said Lupo’s request for FDLE to charge her with filing a false police report is "absolute nonsense” and retribution for her planned bill. Wednesday afternoon, the FDLE said it had closed the case after Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe said no crime had been committed by the representative.

Meanwhile, the Florida League of Cities, which handled the 2016 bond refinancing for Port Richey and eight other cities, deflated Mariano’s contention of impropriety. In an Oct. 8 letter to the city, the league’s figures mirrored the city’s statements that Port Richey’s total interest will be $918,000 on a $3 million debt. Mariano told state investigators that the tab, beginning in 2021, was $900,000 annually for eight years, plus a final payment of $700,000.

Rep. Mariano has cast her bill as a money-saving issue for property taxpayers. She said a homesteaded property valued at $100,000 would realize a 43 percent cut on its tax bill, from $995 to $565, if the city disbands. That was after figuring in the lower property taxes and elimination of utility franchise fees.

Tremblay countered that the same is true of any municipality and, “in essence, they should do away with all the cities.’’

That notion hasn’t escaped the attention of elected leaders in other cities. New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe said he called the offices of Mariano and Hooper and told them the bill was “a bad idea.’’

“They (Port Richey) are having their own challenges, courtesy of a couple of state legislators that I think are making a horrible move to dissolve the city in spite of the fact that it looks like they are getting their act together right now,” Marlowe told council members, according to reporting by Times correspondent Robert Napper .

But more notably, there are questions of losing hometown services like quick response times for public safety calls. Nocco said the city shouldn’t expect the same service from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office if Port Richey dissolves.

“There is no enhanced service,’’ said Nocco. “In reality, it’s putting more work on our deputies. I don’t want an expectation out there that the level of service is going to be the same.’’

Port Richey employs 62 people, including 21 sworn police officers and six firefighters. Future employment with the county is not guaranteed, despite Rep. Mariano’s statement that promised “equitable arrangements’’ for city employees.

“There are no guarantees. It is ludicrous for her to say that,’’ said Lupo.

Nocco said Port Richey’s officers are welcome to apply to his agency, but they are not promised employment. As of Oct. 4, the Sheriff’s Office had no openings for either law enforcement or detention deputies, said sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll.

Expect lots of city residents and employees to attend the delegation meeting Friday morning. An on-line petition to save the city contained more than 670 names by Tuesday afternoon.

A common refrain within the city is that Port Richey has turned a corner and now is headed in the right direction.

Still, you have to wonder if the city turned a corner only to head down an alley for a mugging by the Legislature.