NEW PORT RICHEY — In an unprecedented show of frustration, two Pasco commissioners walked out on Commission Chairman Jack Mariano during Tuesday’s board meeting.
The revolt came after Mariano packed the board room with supporters sporting “I Love SunWest” T-shirts, as he has for each meeting this summer. For two hours, they lined up to take turns pleading for more funding for the park, which is now under construction in the northwest corner of the county. Other supporters scolded and criticized commissioners for refusing to fund 100 percent of Mariano’s requests for his project, which is scheduled to open around Labor Day.
A former limerock mine, the lakefront park will add to the county’s inventory of public beaches and it will be home to a $1 million wakeboarding park. Commissioners voted 4-1 in May to spend $568,000 from the county’s tourism and tree funds, bringing the project’s total budget to $4 million, to complete the first phase of the park.
Mariano wanted another $450,000 of tourism funds to pay for a kids splash park, a second set of bathrooms and a boardwalk, but the majority wasn’t willing to bust the budget to pay now for those items, which were always scheduled to be the park’s second phase. Since that vote, Mariano has called multiple town hall meetings in his Hudson district to rally support for the extra funding.
SunWest supporter Jeromy Harding said that opening the park without the extra amenities would make Pasco a “laughingstock.”
“Pasco is known for not doing things the right way,” he complained. “People come to Florida for beaches.”
Taylor Ney, class president of Ridgewood High, accused commissioners of withholding $523,000 from the park. He said he and his friends don’t want to drive an hour on U.S. 19, “the most dangerous road in America” just to go to a beach.
After two hours, Commissioners Ted Schrader, Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey had had enough. Mariano had placed a “SunWest Update” on the agenda, and they voted to remove it so he couldn’t bring the funding up for discussion.
Schrader accused Mariano of “spreading propaganda” because he refuses to accept the majority vote. “This board approved the contract just under $4 million, and the only commissioner who voted against it is your commissioner,” he told the audience. “You all continue to come out here and act like we’re not supportive. Four commissioners decided it’s in our best interest to do this in phases.”
With that, he and Starkey walked out. “Politics at its finest,” Mariano quipped, which earned a tongue lashing from Mulieri.
“You’re doing an injustice to this board,” she told him.
She told the audience, “You will have a park. You will have a beach. This is the second meeting. It’s not that we’re mean or we’re stupid or we don’t know what’s going on. It’s just that we have X amount of dollars. This is supposed to be a county park; it is not a tourist attraction.”