PORT RICHEY – As could be expected, local officials aren’t pleased with this week’s proposal to strip Port Richey of its cityhood.
News of Port Richey’s potential dissolution broke Monday afternoon with a press release from the office of state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson. Joined by state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, the legislators’ intent is to dissolve the city of Port Richey and revoke its charter “in the wake of recent controversies and debt creation by the city’s local leaders,” according to the press release.
In a news release issued Oct. 30, Mariano said the charter dissolution legislation will be presented to the Pasco County legislative delegation at its annual meeting, to take place 8-11 a.m. Oct. 11 at Pasco-Hernando State College West Campus.
When reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Port Richey Mayor Scott Tremblay objected to the suggestion that the city needs to be taken over by Pasco County and believes it’s not a decision state lawmakers should be making.
“They’re basically saying this is what’s best for the people,” Tremblay said. “If they really feel this way then I would think that they would agree to put it on a referendum and let the people vote on it within the city. In my opinion that’s the proper way to handle this type of situation. Let the people that live in the city vote on it. It should be up to the people and not politicians.”
This isn’t the first time dissolving the city’s been suggested and events of the past year have spurred the current attempt. Port Richey made national headlines for all the wrong reasons in February when former Mayor Dale Massad was arrested during a SWAT raid of his home. Massad was being investigated for practicing medicine without a license and he responded to the early morning raid by firing shots at law enforcement officers.
A second arrest followed shortly after, this time of Terrence Rowe, who was sitting in as mayor for Massad. Rowe was charged with conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice for a phone conversation he had with Massad at the Pasco County Jail.
The pair of arrests, which resulted in Gov. Ron DeSantis suspending Massad and Rowe, left Port Richey City Council struggling to conduct business as usual with only three active members.
The city’s weathered the storm, though, Tremblay said. The former assistant state attorney, who is now a criminal defense lawyer, was voted in as mayor in mid-June and another special election Sept. 10 filled the five-member board with elected representatives.
“There are really no issues in terms of problems with the city right now,” Tremblay said. “I can understand why there was frustration back when the former mayor got arrested but the city’s banded together and moved on. It wouldn’t make sense to put legislation through to disband the city at this point.
“One of the things right now is that the city’s running well,” he said. “The people of the city elected two new council people. My position was filled as the mayor. We did the budget for this year. The finances of the city are in great shape. Our budget was approved by the state.”
Port Richey passed a $12.3 million budget last month that set the city’s general fund property tax rate at the rolled-back rate of 5.7847 mills, down from the past year’s rate of 5.8293. Tremblay said that the city’s “financially healthy” and that what it pays in debt servicing every year is less than three percent of the budget.
When asked via email about the state legislators’ debt concerns, Alexander Alt, a legislative aide to Mariano, wrote it is the lawmakers’ understanding that “the majority of the major debt is from Water and Wastewater Revenue Bonds in the amount of $2,615,000 to be serviced through the city’s utility fund.”
Monday’s press release also insisted that Port Richey residents would save tax dollars if the bill passes.
“With the dissolution of the city, Port Richey residents should see a sharp decrease in their property taxes as they would no longer need to pay property taxes to both the city and the county,” Mariano wrote. The press release states that on a home worth $100,000 that is eligible for the homestead exemption the homeowner should see a 43-percent tax decrease, from about $995 to $565.
While Tremblay said dissolution would result in a tax decrease, it doesn’t guarantee overall savings for residents.
“There are two aspects to that,” Tremblay said. “Number one, would the taxes go down some? It would be very slight, but yes. But the problem and the thing that’s not weighed into that is our insurance on our properties on the waterfront is much lower because we’re a city and we’re not part of the county. While we’d save a little bit in taxes, our insurance goes way up, so we haven’t really financially come ahead at all.
“Right now our water department is much cheaper than what the county water is, so the people’s water bills are going to go up,” Tremblay continued. “There will be a lot of collateral things that offset the savings in taxes, so I don’t think we’re going to come out ahead at all.”
The mayor added that response times for emergencies would increase without city police and fire department services.
City Council convenes for its first regular meeting of the month Oct. 8. Tremblay said the issue will be addressed and he expects to be hearing from concerned residents.
“We’re going to have to because right now the people in Port Richey are mad,” he said. “They are upset. The way they see it, their representatives made a decision about the quality of their life without consulting anyone, without calling anyone, without getting a feel for what the people want. Certainly, I feel that they’ve been misrepresented, I think, at this point.”