A critic called the availability of funds "strange" given recent Port Richey budget woes.
PORT RICHEY - With an animated group of waterfront property owners looking on, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to dip into a reserve fund to pay for canal dredging permits.
The $70,000 withdrawal came on the heels of a recent budget season that resulted in staffing cuts and the elimination of the police dispatch center.
"Just a few short months ago, they said we're broke," observed Fred Miller, a candidate for City Council who was in attendance Tuesday. "Now all of a sudden they've got 70 grand. That sounds a little strange."
Dale Massad, a council member who has made dredging the centerpiece of his re-election bid, brushed criticism aside.
"We were losing a lot of money on dispatch," he said, referring to estimates that the city could save up to $90,000 by contracting services from New Port Richey.
"But with this we're investing $70,000 in the city and we're going to get a lot more back," Massad continued.
If the canals are deeper, the reasoning goes, it would make waterfront homes more attractive to potential buyers. Prices go up as do property taxes.
Existing homeowners with no intention of selling benefit by increased use of the water. Dredging could also improve water quality through better circulation.
Failing to address the situation, Massad said, is "like not drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia. That's our oil, the waterfront. It's what makes this area a jewel."
A large, vocal crowd of homeowners was on hand for the discussion. One woman described the canal behind her home as a "mud hole." Pictures were passed around showing impassable canals and a boat resting on dry land.
"Canals and waterways are the city's most important assets. They have been neglected and are in desperate need of maintenance," said Mike Latini, a member of the Port Authority Board, an advisory committee that has worked on dredging since February 2001.
The $70,000 the council set aside Tuesday would not clean an inch of canal. It is to seek permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection. If permits are awarded, dredging could cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. The city intends to obtain grants for the work.
About $18,000 - including $10,000 from the Paradise of Port Richey casino boat operation - has already been spent to secure what the DEP calls a "maintenance dredging exemption" covering portions of 11 canals.
The exemption allows the city to remove up to 2.6 feet of sediment, restoring the canals to their original depth, DEP spokesman Mike Zavosky said.
The new money, which will come from a reserve fund of more than $400,000 generated by the sale of city property near Wal-Mart, will go toward 14 additional canals.
Massad said the original depth of those canals could not be established so the city will have to hire an engineer to create plans for a depth of 5 feet below mean low water.
In other action Tuesday:
Fired Police Chief Bill Downs was on hand to see his second-in-command, Bill Sager, named chief. Downs, who was dismissed Oct. 31, expressed support for his former lieutenant. "They picked a fine man, and an excellent officer. He deserves the job and I think he'll do well." City Manager Vince Lupo, who appointed Sager, said he would begin working out a contract this week.
- Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org