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Two cities go to polls on Tuesday

CROWDED FIELD: New Port Richey's election has eight candidates, three of them incumbents, running for three council seats.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- For most of the past year, practically the only people who attended New Port Richey City Council meetings were those who were being paid to do so.

But a $1.5-million road improvement project that could dip into the pockets of 725 property owners, ushered a slew of angry residents into meetings and a crowd of candidates to challenge council members Ginny Miller, Tom Finn and Jack Van Keuren for their seats.

The council agreed in January to pay for 38 percent of the project, and in March delayed the decision on the project until after it could get actual bids from contractors.

Although controversy about the city's Civil Service Board and other capital improvement projects gave the candidates plenty to rally around in the months leading up to elections, the only concrete issue they kept returning to is the street improvement project.

Finn, John DiGiorgio, Robert Moore and Robby Poff agree that if the road improvement project needs to be done, then the City Council needs to find a way to pay for it, other than assessing the residents who will benefit from it. Miller and Van Keuren -- who voted as council members to delay the project until they got bids -- did not make it a campaign issue.

Susan Clark said during a candidates forum that people need to have the right to vote on the issue. Bette Farmerie said that putting the project out to bid first was the right way to go.

DiGiorgio, one of the residents who would be affected by the proposed street assessment, also objects to the city's investments in a skateboard park, the Grey Preserve and in downtown improvements. He said he'd like to use things like children's events in Sims Park to bring people downtown.

He and Moore also objected to the executive salaries of city employees during the campaign. Moore says he wants to examine city salaries and job redundancies. He also wants to consider the strong-mayor form of government, or take a look at putting each council member in charge of a city department. As for street improvements, he thinks the city should have a special dedicated fund that all residents with water meters contribute to on an annual basis, so that the city does not have to rely on assessments.

Farmerie, who is making her third run for public office, says that she wants to put more muscle into code enforcement and tackle such issues as blighted properties and street flooding so that people are proud of the whole city, not just particular areas.

Poff stresses that he is not campaigning on a single issue. He says the outrage over the street assessments is one example of how bad the relationship between New Port Richey citizens and government is, and how morale needs to be brought to a higher level. Poff has said there needs to be better management of funds. He concedes that he is young (28) and inexperienced, but contends that what city residents really need is someone who's willing to listen, an open ear.

Clark, the wife of David "Hap" Clark, also admitted to being "behind the 8-ball" on issues but vowed to verse herself on them and represent what the people want, should they elect her. She also said that she wants to move the city forward by stopping bickering among council members.

Two of the incumbents are also staying away from campaigning on a single issue. Miller, who was elected to finish out a one-year term on the council in 1998, re-elected in 1999 and named deputy mayor in 2000, says that her efforts fall under staving off the city's afflictions. She wants to focus on redevelopment efforts that will make a property or a group of properties more attractive to the individuals and outside investors, so that citizens of every financial persuasion would be able to live in the city.

Van Keuren, who also is running for the third time, says the street assessment issue is an example of how the city has a budget problem that needs to be fixed. He contends that if people want the services, they're going to have to pay for them. He also wants to look at neighborhood rehabilitation, and thinks that drainage problems and capital improvement projects need to be tackled one at a time.

Finn, who will be running for his second two-year term, also is stressing redevelopment. He vows to improve code enforcement, promote annexing commercial enclaves that surround the city limits, build a skateboard park for youths, fix the municipal pool operation and encourage in-fill property. Finn stresses that expanding the Community Redevelopment Area to include the entire city would provide a stream of revenue that would help eliminate the need for assessment projects. He thinks the city should use the gas tax to pay for the street assessment program.

The Job

New Port Richey candidates are elected at large in a non-partisan race. The winning candidates will serve two-year terms. Council members make $3,600 each per year.

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