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Bummer budget for New Port Richey

The city manager asks for a tax increase and a new fee and points out reserves are dwindling.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 2, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Call it the "bad news budget." City Manager Gerald Seeber has sent New Port Richey City Council members a proposed $26-million budget that includes:

A small tax increase.

A recommendation for a new fee to pay for rising costs of city services.

A drained reserve, which has cushioned taxpayers from previous budget shortfalls, that will be exhausted by the end of next year.

In an interview, Seeber said that improvements to the recreation center and the acquisition of the Hacienda Hotel, which the council has discussed, might have to wait while the city copes with the loss of its biggest taxpayer and its two largest employers.

Seeber has recommended a 2.7 percent increase in the property tax rate, to 6.42 mills from 6.25 mills. That's $6.42 for every $1,000 of assessed property.

The owner of a $100,000 home, who takes the standard $25,000 homestead exemption, would pay $481.50 in city property taxes next year if the rate goes up, versus $468.75 this year.

The increase that Seeber has recommended would pay for rising expenses and upgrades to city services, such as new library computers, seven new police patrol cars and the creation of Community Oriented Policing, which involves the hiring of four new police officers.

To cope with climbing costs over the long term, Seeber has suggested the creation of a new fee to help pay to run the library, parks, police and fire departments.

Historically, the city has used property and utility taxes to do that, and tapped the reserves when it couldn't make ends meet. But, according to city finance director, the remaining $566,090 in reserves will be depleted by the end of the next fiscal year.

"We have to increase the number of places we raise funding," Seeber said.

The city has two other similar fees: Homeowners annually pay a $40 fee for flood control and water-quality projects. Utility customers who live outside city limits pay about $17 a year for streetlighting.

The size of a so-called Public Safety Service Fee would depend on how much money City Council members would want to raise. Property taxes probably still would be used to pay for the bulk of these services. If City Council members approve a public safety fee, 2003 would be the earliest that it would go into effect.

Seeber said the tax increase and new fee have nothing to do with the impending departures of North Bay and Community hospitals.

But the hospitals' moves might delay improvements the city had envisioned for the recreation center and the Hacienda Hotel. City Council members had discussed spending about $10-million over the next decade on those projects.

"With the hospitals' planned relocation, I thought it best for the (council) to consider devoting some of its money and a good portion of time to redevelop the hospital area," Seeber said. "That means less money for the recreation center improvements and the Hacienda Hotel."

Community, which employs a staff of 1,050 and pays $245,000 a year in taxes, plans to demolish the building it leaves behind. North Bay, a nonprofit that employs a staff of 500 and pays no property taxes, plans to maintain some medical services at its site.

Both moves are three to five years away. Seeber has set aside $400,000 from the redevelopment fund in the coming year to study ways to revive the areas around the hospitals. About $4-million has been budgeted over the next five years for that purpose.

Also planned for the redevelopment this fiscal year: $900,000 has been set aside for neighborhood improvements, and $600,000 has been budgeted for upgrading park areas along Grand Boulevard and the Pithlachascotee River.

The City Council will discuss the budget further at a work session scheduled for Aug. 13. Public hearings on the budget and tax levy are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 9 and Sept. 23.

-- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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