NEW PORT RICHEY — Rays of sunshine continue to break through clouds of gloom and doom six years of declining property values cast over the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
The CRA registered its first increase in taxable values with a 2.3 percent gain in fiscal 2014, Mario Iezzoni reported Tuesday as the city’s economic development manager. He spoke to city council members, who double as the CRA board directors.
“We seem to have hit the bottom,” Iezzoni reflected Tuesday.
In May, Peter Altman, the city’s finance and human resources director, told council he was confident the city would be able to handle the debt left over from a number of downtown property purchases the CRA made last decade that went sour. During the depths of the recession, an outside auditor told city leaders debt service payments would chew up all of the CRA budget until 2027.
Iezzoni now predicts a “very conservative” growth rate up to 1.5 percent a year in CRA resources.
The CRA could thus free up some funds to pursue goals. Those could include rolling back the city’s relatively high property tax millage rate or providing tax abatements, as well as incentives to fill vacant downtown storefronts and the return of the popular façade improvement matching grants for building owners.
////The good news Tuesday halted the downward trend. The $9.92 million gain for fiscal 2014, which ends Sept. 33, boosted citywide CRA property values to $446,534,393.
Refinancing the CRA debt also yielded more cash flow for the agency.
“Currently, the biggest disincentive to attracting investment capital is New Port Richey’s millage rate,” Iezzoni wrote in a memo to council members. “It’s exceptionally high, even though there is an offsetting benefit given the affordability of city commercial property.”
Among hundreds of cities in Florida, New Port Richey ranks the 10th highest for property tax rates, hovering at about 9 mills, Iezzoni said Tuesday. The average among cities the size of New Port Richey is 4 mills.
“We have to keep the millage rate a focus,” Councilman Jeff Starkey agreed.
Big boons for city economic development could come from the renovated Hacienda hotel project and attracting a consolidated veterans clinic to a site within city limits.
Contract negotiations should conclude soon with Hacienda developers, Iezzoni noted.
The Medical Center of Trinity West Pasco Campus could provide the room to build the veterans clinic along Marine Parkway. Property values in that corridor have plunged since the closing of Community Hospital to become Medical Center of Trinity at 9330 S.R. 54.
Downtown residential development could provide other goals on the economic horizon, Iezzoni pointed out. The city owns parcels near Orange Lake that have been mentioned for townhomes in recent years. Main Street Landings might resume in a more favorable economic climate. Other suggestions have included loft apartments in existing buildings to bring more people to the downtown area.
In the meantime, the fiscal 2015 CRA budget incorporates a $50,000 expenditure as the city’s matching share for the SmartStart business incubator on Grand Boulevard. The Pasco Economic Development Council operates the incubator.
Another $150,000 is earmarked to help implement the Harbors plan co-developed with Pasco County to revitalize West Pasco, especially the U.S. 19 corridor.
Iezzoni said more recreation utilizing the Pithlachascotee River would improve quality of life here and stimulate waterfront tourism. The city could market paddle sport and ecological activities. The city should pursue tourist development funds.