Road to controversy paved with poor plan
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001
The New Port Richey City Council devised a new way to pave city streets.
In trading potholes for foxholes, the council delayed final consideration of a controversial street-paving project until after the April 10 election, in which three incumbents face voters. Putting the emphasis on political expediency is a disservice to the public.
At issue is a 38-street, $1.4-million project that has drawn severe criticism from residents of Tanglewood Terrace and other nearby neighborhoods who contend the cost, ranging from $631 to $2,235 per household, is an unfair financial burden. Tuesday night, facing rhetoric-filled barbs from protesters, the council agreed unanimously to wait until construction bids are received before considering final approval.
The stall inexplicably left some residents claiming partial victory. More accurately, it allows the council to try to dodge accountability with an angry electorate. Tuesday's action came even though the council previously voted to support the project in November and January, and twice declined to hear emergency motions from council member Tom Finn who sought to revamp the assessment program.
Under state law, the city can assess property owners the cost of paving neighborhood streets. The expense often perturbs residents, but previous councils have never acquiesced like the current elected leaders.
The first paving assessment project undertaken during City Manager Gerald Seeber's tenure came in 1989. A five-hour hearing drew hundreds of people lamenting the cost assessed to the 450 property owners. The council believed the engineers' cost estimates were high, but approved the project with the acknowledgement the final price to the public would be cheaper than advertised.
In 1998, the council approved repaving the Meadows subdivision, but picked up 40 percent of the cost.
This time, a council majority promised to kick in 38 percent of the price of the project, equivalent to the $565,000 estimated cost to improve sidewalks. The move came after a rancorous public hearing in January.
The system is flawed. If the council's standing policy now is to pick up approximately 40 percent of the street assessment, it must budget accordingly. As it is, the council must consider how to come up with money to offset its share. The ideas include using previously borrowed money that had been designated for citywide neighborhood improvements or using gasoline tax money pledged for a drainage project and substituting proceeds from a sewer fee that has yet to be adopted.
It is absurd to be scratching for cash now, considering that the council knew an assessment project was coming this year and the planning began in the fall. It is magnified by the budget decision in September to forgo a large property tax increase in favor of trimming city payroll expenses.
Residents, meanwhile, shouldn't have to resort to obnoxious behavior to get the same financial benefit offered to another neighborhood three years ago.
Consequences should be considered beyond the April election. Paving streets is a matter of routine. The council should make paying for them just as routine.
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