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Citizens organize to save dispatch

A committee wants a referendum to reopen the center, dissolved by the Port Richey City Council recently.

By ALEX LEARY
Published October 4, 2003

PORT RICHEY - Supporters of the Police Department formed a committee Friday that could seek a referendum on the City Council's recent decision to dissolve the emergency dispatch center.

The council, which voted 3-2 to get rid of dispatch, would have the opportunity to reverse itself, thus avoiding a ballot measure. But that is unlikely.

"I don't intend to change my vote," said council member Phyllis Grae, who sided with Dale Massad and Pat Guttman in the Aug. 26 decision. Mayor Eloise Taylor and Bill Bennett opposed the move.

"I think these people represent the vocal minority and hardly the silent majority," Grae said. "We'll see what happens."

The committee is headed by Jim Priest, a former council candidate who has been in front of the opposition to downsize the Police Department. Other members are Fred Miller, Frank Stetter, Harry "Red" Satchell and Greg Ross, who ran for a council seat in April.

To get the question on a ballot, the committee would have to collect signatures from roughly 190 people, or 10 percent of registered voters, Priest said.

Doing so, Priest said, would be "very simple." While the Police Department debate ensued this past summer, Priest helped collect more than 200 signatures against the cuts.

That petition threatened to take steps to disband the city. Priest, who said he never quite agreed with such a hard-line stance, said people think the new approach is more constructive.

"We're trying to save the city," he said. "The majority of the people in this community wants the Police Department in whole. They don't want pieces."

The referendum would be held in April or earlier, if the council sets a special election.

City Manager Vince Lupo intended to have a contract with the city of New Port Richey in place by Wednesday. But the agreement still has not reached the City Council there.

Lupo said he will continue working on the contract. "The council has given me a vote; given me a direction."

Priest said that would be foolish with a possible referendum in the works. If an agreement is worked out with New Port Richey and has to be changed, he said, Port Richey could be liable for breach of contract.

The contract would cost about $93,000 per year. Lupo says that is roughly half what the city would have had to pay for dispatch, though critics, including Police Chief Bill Downs, say the dispatch budget was inflated.

And they note that in the first year, the savings would be offset by payouts to dispatch employees for unemployment and benefits.

"This has never been about finances," Miller said. "It's been about politics. It's about a group of people who want to see the police department go down the tubes."

A referendum may not square with those who believe the council was elected to make decisions, but "this is the only option we have left," Miller said. "Those in power don't listen to the people."

- Alex Leary covers the city of Port Richey. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is leary@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 4, 2003, 02:04:40]


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