Council weighs uses for $1 million windfall
NEW PORT RICHEY - With a cash-strapped city budget, New Port Richey officials were delighted to hear this week that about $1 million extra could be available each fiscal year. “In my mind, this is one of the key elements to turn around our city,” Councilman Bill Phillips said. He was reacting to a consultant’s report on transferring money from the water and sewer fund to the general fund. That gives the city about $967,669 worth of breathing room in its current budget. The city has restored about a dozen staff jobs after cutting positions last fall. “We think it’s a very solid plan,” Mike E. Burton, president of the consulting firm Burton and Associates, said about two recommendations that the council adopted.First, Burton explained, the city receives an annual payment of $847,579 from Tampa Bay Water for some city assets the regional utility bought. That money can be transferred to the general fund. Second, the city will charge its own utility an annual fee equal to 2 percent of the utility’s operating revenues. The new charge is roughly equivalent to franchise fees that a private utility would pay to use city rights of way for pipelines and other infrastructure, Burton said. The annual fee provides a pro-rated amount of $107,360 for the current budget and almost $221,000 for the full-year budget in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, and beyond. Annual 4 percent increases in city water and sewer rates should be enough to keep the utility running smoothly through 2022, Burton said. Using his calculations, the utility should collect enough revenue for its operating expenses, capital expenditures, reserve fund and debt payments. Phillips proposed uses for the influx of funds, passing out his own spreadsheet to fellow council members for discussion. Topping the list, Phillips would earmark $650,000 for the general fund reserves. The money would cover the city’s expense for tearing down the dilapidated Walden Pond mobile homes until it receives reimbursement. Another $100,000 could go toward neighborhood community policing programs. The city could use $50,000 for stabilizing the historic Hacienda hotel structure. Phillips would match donations from the public. An online pledge drive through the Citizinvestor website started about a month ago. The goal is to raise $37,800 to cover major repairs of the Hacienda before the deadline about two months from now. Repairs are expensive because they must conform to the standards of the National Register of Historic Places, which listed the Hacienda in 1996. Other priorities Phillips mentioned were computer upgrades for the development department, land-use code revisions, library improvements and firefighter cross-training. Councilman Rob Marlowe especially liked the suggestion for a study of the city land-use code, which he says “stinks.” The city had to pay a substantial settlement fee in a recent conflict over city restrictions, Marlowe said. In addition, Marlowe said, the sign ordinance results in many requests for variances. Mayor Bob Consalvo suggested other council members submit their wish lists of priorities.