NEW PORT RICHEY — Three months after prostitution-related arrests were made at two New Port Richey spas, the City Council voted to ban the operation of what the ordinance enacting the ban terms “bathhouses” within city limits.

Council members heard impassioned pleas denouncing the ordinance before coming to a 4-1 decision to move forward. Similar pro and con debates were initiated during the ordinance’s first reading on Jan. 2.

Last Tuesday’s action will amend Chapter 13 of the City Code. According to the ordinance, a bathhouse is described as an establishment other than a medical facility that permits a bath be applied by one person to another.

Suspected links to prostitution and human trafficking caused the city to initiate an amendment to the city code, officials say.

Enforcement of the ordinance includes a fine of up to $500 for each violation or imprisonment of up to 60 days, or both. That includes both the business owner and the provider of illegal services. Each day of a continuing violation constitutes a separate violation.

Many of the nine individuals speaking during public comment denounced the ordinance’s penalties as too harsh and that it overly criminalizes consensual acts that are not related to human trafficking. The employees of the spas are just trying to support their families, the opponents said.

Councilman Peter Altman cast the lone no vote. The former New Port Richey mayor and Pasco County commissioner said he was not against all aspects of the bathhouse ban, just the inclusion of language linking the businesses to human trafficking.

“We could be a little more clear in the way in which we’re presenting this,” Altman said. “I support the idea that these businesses don’t belong here. These other issues, which may never come into play, are still written in pen on paper and they’re still in there.”

The severe penalties business owners and employees face for violating the ban are needed to ensure effective enforcement but are unlikely to be imposed, City Attorney Timothy Driscoll said.

“There are criminal penalties in every city ordinance,” Driscoll said. “Every city ordinance carries with it a violation where you can be imprisoned for up to 60 days. I can tell you that never happens. I won’t even say it rarely happens, it never happens.

“But it is allowed by law and it is something we’re required to provide by statute, but it’s up to the court to determine whether that type of punishment would be necessary, and I can tell you it probably would never happen. I’ve never seen it and I’ve been doing this for 32 years.”

Police Chief Kim Bogart was asked to discuss the October spa arrests and provide insight on the issue of human trafficking in New Port Richey. The arrests occurred at Miyako Spa, 4962 U.S. 19, and Kimora Spa, 6602 U.S. 19.

The employees of both bathhouses, which were closed after the arrests, were “victims,” Bogart said. They weren’t allowed to leave the premises, slept on pallets and had a “tiny” area in which to prepare food that could be termed even a “kitchenette,” he said.

The Police Department has not made any human trafficking arrests, Bogart said, but added that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist within the city.

“Without victim cooperation it’s impossible to make a trafficking case,” Bogart told council. “Do I know that human trafficking is going on? Absolutely. Can I prove it? How can I do it? How can I take it to court without a victim to cooperate?

During one of bathhouse arrests police had to separate the employees from the owner “because of the eye contact that the owner was giving to the victims to make them shut up,” Bogart said. “So, don’t think it isn’t really happening. It is.”

Prior to voting on the ordinance, council members praised those who spoke during the meeting and for the information presented. The consensus, however, was to move forward with amending the City Code.

“Condoning the operation of what is essentially a commercial front for prostitution in the city of New Port Richey is, to me, a bridge far too far,” said Mayor Rob Marlowe. “I am not willing to allow that in the city of New Port Richey and I support the motion.”