DADE CITY — Pasco County commissioners voiced strong support on Tuesday for the findings of the scathing state audit of the Port Richey Community Redevelopment Agency and agreed that they want to see changes that will protect county taxpayers.
The commission discussed seeking state law changes that would give them more of a say in how the city’s redevelopment board makes decisions and how such agencies collect and spend taxes. Commissioners also asked to have frank talks with city leaders about further shrinking the area they declare as blight, refunding to the county unspent redevelopment money if appropriate, and reconciling the share of funding provided by the county.
Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey was eager to see protections for the county from what she called “a little rogue city.” These same things could be happening all over the state and the Legislature needs to consider changes, she said.
The Florida Auditor General blasted the city’s redevelopment agency in a report last month for improperly spending money on city salaries, including those of City Council members, police and fire officials. The report also said the redevelopment area boundaries are too broad, which hampers the city’s ability to pay for general services, and for making Pasco County pay nearly the entire cost of redevelopment in 2008 and 2020 to balance budget shortfalls.
Those were just some of the findings in the 37-page document. It also cited the city for not following basic bookkeeping and procedural rules. It also cited the city for not keeping or publishing a current list of redevelopment projects and not having protocols to stop fraud, control the budget and exercise standard purchasing rules.
Redevelopment agencies are created to address blight in communities. They are funded by taxes derived when property values increase in the area as investments are made there. Until recently, Port Richey included the entire city within its redevelopment boundaries and, as the auditor found, that meant money needed to operate the city was funneled instead to the redevelopment agency.
County administrator Dan Biles assured commissioners that he has spoken with Port Richey city manager John Dudte and that the city intends to make the changes that the auditor recommended. That includes a couple that city officials questioned. Dudte also told the Tampa Bay Times that the city was already working on a fraud policy and that “you will continue to see over the next several months the city and community redevelopment agency board taking additional steps to accomplish the recommendations in the audit report.”
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Despite those assurances, county commissioners said they want to be sure their own taxpayers’ interests are not compromised.
County Commissioner Mike Moore had pushed for the city to remove the gated waterfront community of Harborpointe from the redevelopment district, which it did last year. He wants to see additional contraction of the boundaries.
Commissioners were also unhappy that the county was assessed nearly the entire cost of the redevelopment district in 2008 and 2020. The auditor noted that the county share of taxes accounted for 98 and 97 percent of the total redevelopment agency revenue respectively in those years when the total funding from the county should have only been 58 and 53 percent.
Moore said Tuesday that he also saw an unspent balance of $1.2 million in the city’s redevelopment fund, which he believes the county should research to find out if it must be returned to taxpayers at the end of the fiscal year.
“It’s not fair to the taxpayers,’' said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who agreed that there are projects the city needs and can afford to fund because it has funding in its existing account. His daughter, State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, pushed to have the audit conducted two years ago when she heard concerns about the city’s financial health.
Moore and other commissioners said that the county should have some voice on the redevelopment agency board. It is currently composed of the five Port Richey Council members. Mariano said having the same people on each board was “absolutely absurd” and that “it makes no sense.”
Starkey also said she wants formal input. “When we’re funding the majority of it, we should have some say,” she said. Starkey has already contacted leaders in the Legislature to open dialogue about changes.