Hospitals dominate election
By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
A week before New Port Richey's City Council race officially began, North Bay and Community hospitals handed the candidates an issue to rally around: The businesses announced moving plans.
The hospitals are the city's two largest employers and the city's major health care providers. Community Hospital is the city's largest taxpayer.
The state will decide whether to approve the moves in June. But the possibility sparked questions about the city's ability to provide basic services and keep the tax base healthy.
Four candidates are vying for the mayoral seat Wendy Brenner has held for the past two years. They are Rainer Karls, Robert Moore, Frank Parker and Jack Van Keuren. Brenner is not running for re-election. Meanwhile, two candidates are challenging Scott Chittum for the council seat Chittum has held since 2000. The challengers: John DiGiorgio and Harold Windlan.
Community Hospital officials say they want to leave for an unnamed site in west Pasco because their 30-year-old building provides no room to expand. If they leave, the old building will be razed.
North Bay Hospital, owned by nonprofit Morton Plant Mease, wants to carry out its long-term goal of having a hospital in Trinity, to join its outpatient complex there. If the hospital moves, some medical services will be maintained in the old building.
All the candidates say the city should do whatever it can to keep the hospitals.
Parker and Windlan say they want to take a proactive approach.
Parker says the city's efforts might include using its powers of eminent domain to acquire land Community Hospital says it needs to expand. He also wants to create a commercial redevelopment plan, to revive the areas surrounding the hospitals, should the hospitals leave.
Windlan says the city should form a committee to figure out what to do about the hospitals' departures. Both Windlan and Karls suggest that if Community Hospital leaves, the site could be turned into a junior college campus.
Van Keuren says he does not think the state will allow both hospitals to leave, and that the planning for how to handle the loss of the hospitals should start when the state makes a final decision.
Chittum and DiGiorgio both say that if the hospitals move, they want to bring commercial development in their places that will keep the tax base healthy and bring people into the city.
Moore says the city needs to petition the state to keep the hospitals in New Port Richey.
All of the candidates are calling for increased code enforcement to keep properties in the city from further decay. Van Keuren wants to continue the neighborhood redevelopment efforts that the city has started.
Parker suggests expanding the city's incentive program for those who rebuild and improve their homes. Chittum wants to investigate providing reclaimed water to the residents.
Windlan says he wants to make sure that code enforcement is carried out fairly and universally throughout the city.
He opposes the city's plan to purchase the Hacienda Hotel for commercial development. He also is against the proposed move of the city boat ramp to a new site, which he believes is near his home.
Both Windlan and Moore say the city should be more friendly and responsive to business needs. Windlan and Karls vow to be more accessible at City Hall.
Moore promises no new taxes but wants to institute ambulance service for the city and a police foot patrol downtown, and re-examine the stormwater utility fee that the City Council approved last year. Moore and Van Keuren want to rein in the council meetings, where council members have argued repeatedly with one another and residents during the past year.
Van Keuren says he is not opposed to raising the millage rate, if it is necessary to provide residents with basic services.
Karls wants to solve the flooding problems in Jasmine Acres and improve police patrols in the neighborhoods. He also wants to institute a strong mayor form of government, which would give the mayor and City Council members more power than they have now.
DiGiorgio says that the city needs to prioritize its projects. He wants to put projects such as the Grey Preserve, skateboard park and relocation of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church on hold in order to solve the flooding problems in Jasmine Acres.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said he expects the voter turnout percentage to be in the teens to high 20s.
-- Staff writer Matt Waite contributed to this report.
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