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    Pizza Hut granted 2-week reprieve

    Tarpon Springs says it will give the restaurant time to change its Union Academy delivery policy before taking any action against the business.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 12, 2002

    TARPON SPRINGS -- Pizza Hut would like to deliver to the Union Academy neighborhood at night, an executive told the mayor this week, but the company has asked for two more weeks to decide for certain.

    In the meantime, Pizza Hut will deliver to Union Academy until 9 p.m., and city officials have agreed to delay talk of revoking the company's occupational license.

    Pizza Hut vice president Robert Millen faxed a letter asking for more time to Mayor Frank DiDonato Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the City Commission's meeting. Commissioners were scheduled to discuss whether to take legal action against the company, but instead they agreed to wait -- for now.

    "We're going in the right direction," DiDonato said.

    Pizza Hut stopped night deliveries to the neighborhood in November after one of its drivers was robbed nearby. Because the area is predominantly black, some residents and elected officials have said the decision had more to do with race than with safety.

    In response, city officials started talks with both Pizza Hut and Domino's, which was delivering to Union Academy but not to Mango Circle. Domino's has since changed its policy and delivers everywhere in the city. Pizza Hut, because it is a larger corporation with more layers of bureaucracy, needs more time, DiDonato said.

    "They've come a long way in a short time," said DiDonato, who has talked to Millen twice in the past week. "He's confident Tarpon Springs is a place where they can deliver throughout the city."

    Pizza Hut executives in Dallas are reviewing crime statistics from the area and interviewing employees, city officials and other interested citizens, Millen told DiDonato.

    That's something they should have already done, Commissioner David Archie said.

    "I don't mind giving them 10 days to get their act together," he said. But after 10 business days, he said, the city should make sure Pizza Hut follows through.

    And the company should not be able to arbitrarily halt delivery in the future, Archie said.

    "I know sometimes bigger means bureaucracy, and sometimes being bigger just means you think you can do whatever you want to do," he said.

    Pizza Hut doesn't want to limit its customer base, Millen said in his letter to DiDonato. "But as you know, our business objective of selling as many pizzas as possible cannot overwhelm the responsibilities we owe our drivers," he wrote. "Credible, objective concerns have surfaced about safe delivery service in certain portions of Tarpon Springs."

    The Union Academy neighborhood has undergone a substantial revitalization effort in the past two years. The city has cleared more than 100 lots and dozens of new homes are being built. The mayor has told all the pizza companies that serve the area to alert police any time a driver feels unsafe, DiDonato said.

    Commissioner Beverley Billiris said that she is tired of hearing that the area is unsafe and that crime statistics don't justify that reputation. Of the 174 robberies in the city between 1995 and July of this year, 45 occurred in Union Academy, according to statistics from the Tarpon Springs Police Department.

    "I feel our city got a bad rap," Billiris said. "I can say to you that is not a problem area."

    Also Tuesday, the commission passed next year's $37.3-million budget. The property tax rate will stay the same as this year -- about $4.95 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property's assessed, nonexempt value.

    For someone who had a home assessed at $125,000 and who received a $25,000 homestead exemption, that rate would translate into a city tax bill of $494.54 next year. That hypothetical tax bill does not include taxes levied by Pinellas County, the School District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District or other taxing authorities.

    -- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182.

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