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Port Richey, Pasco County do battle over delayed federal aid for dredging

City officials call it political payback from Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Federal aid to the city of Port Richey for dredging a canal linking Miller’s Bayou to the Pithlachascotee River — a key component of revitalizing the city’s waterfront district — is in doubt.

On Tuesday morning, Pasco County Commissioners cancelled their agreement with the city that would have allowed Port Richey to tap money from the federal Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act. The so-called Restore Act money is intended as reparations tied to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, commissioners agreed not to reallocate the money to another project and said Port Richey will get a chance to do the work as part of a broader dredging effort championed by Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Prior to the meeting, city officials had cried foul, saying the county’s decision was political payback from Mariano, who previously offered his own idea to tap state money to dredge multiple channels in the city. The commissioner also is the father of state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, whose recent attempt to dissolve the city legislatively stalled amid questions from other members of Pasco’s legislative delegation.

"It’s a lesson in what happens when you don’t do what Jack Mariano wants you to do,'' City Manager Vince Lupo said before the county vote.

"That’s a great quote,'' answered Mariano. "It’s really a lesson in what happens when the city manager doesn’t listen to the Restore Act staff who said not to drop (part of) the project. He decided not to do that and put it where it cannot be funded.''

Four years ago, the commission approved the Port Richey waterfront improvement plan as one of three projects to be financed by the federal program. The original plan called for dredging two channels and building a boat ramp and parking lot at the the city’s Waterfront Park.

But questions surfaced within months after then-Mayor Dale Massad said the city received notice from the Florida Communities Trust suggesting that a boat ramp and parking lot could violate the state’s deed restrictions on the property. The Trust is an arm of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that granted the Waterfront Park land to the city in 1997.

The council overruled Massad and agreed to proceed as planned after Mariano appeared at a December 2015 council meeting and said the dredge was the main reason to move forward.

The city eventually scrapped the proposed boat ramp and parking lot and downsized the project to include dredging only Channel 1, after the only bid came in at $652,000. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, however, told the county in September that the reduced scope of work didn’t conform to the original improvement plan, setting the stage for commissioners to terminate the funding agreement during their meeting Tuesday in Dade City.

"I don’t think the remedy is to strike the funding, I think the remedy is to reapply,'' Port Richey Mayor Scott Tremblay said before the commission meeting. "To take this money from a coastal community doesn’t seem to make logical sense.''

The city can reapply for funding through the county’s Restore Act Advisory Council, which is headed by Commissioner Mariano. Success there, however, didn’t appear likely.

"I doubt it. The value’s not there,'' said Mariano, who said he wouldn’t have supported the waterfront improvement project if it had been proposed as a single channel dredging.

Instead, the commission said the amended improvement plan would bypass that committee and come directly to commissioners for consideration.

At Mariano’s urging, the commission also said the city should work with county staff to try to leverage potential aid from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to dredge as many as five channels. Mariano presented that idea to the Port Richey City Council in April, but received little support, in part because Port Richey officials worried about their environmental permits expiring.

On Tuesday, Mariano criticized city officials for their inaction and lobbied his fellow commissioners not to do likewise.

"We can do so much better than what’s here,'' Mariano said.

The city, however, was equally critical, saying the county knew all along the boat ramps at Waterfront Park were to be excluded. The city already has received a bid to do the channel dredging and was awaiting county approval to issue a notice to proceed to the contractor.

"And then at the 11th hour, they’re bringing up this nonsense.'' said Port Richey City Attorney James Mathieu. "This is beyond outrageous.''

The city even has a sign for the dredging site, as required by the county. It states that part of the funding "was allocated to the city of Port Richey in partnership with the Pasco County Board of County Commissioners.''

The sign won’t be installed any time soon.