View Full Version : North Port sees growth vanish

10-03-2007, 04:32 PM
North Port sees growth vanish
Money crunch caused by housing collapse could delay projects for years.



NORTH PORT -- This was supposed to be the year the city made substantial progress on a backlog of parks and other projects that have accumulated for years.

But now North Port budget writers say there won't be enough money for projects such as the new Little League fields parents have long clamored for or the widening of Sumter Boulevard.

The ballparks and Sumter project could be pushed back for years as the city looks at cutting nearly $110 million in spending over the next four years, the latest evidence of looming budget problems here stemming from the downturn in the building industry.

"We've cut back obviously because of the fewer number of homes and commercial (development)," said City Manager Steven Crowell, who is reviewing the city's five-year construction plan.

Perhaps hardest hit by the building downturn and the accompanying decline in impact fees is the city's Parks and Recreation Department, which was planning to spend more than $8 million on a community park with five baseball fields on East Price Boulevard.

Under last year's projections, when the city was still banking on the kind of growth that doubled the city's population during the first five years of the decade, the parks department planned to have some of the fields open by next year's Little League season.

Now, the project is about $6 million short, and when the new fields will be ready is unclear. That is bad news for the dozens of teams that use North Port's two existing fields each season, creating a scheduling headache for Little League organizers.

"Field time is at a premium," said Mike Steele, a Little League coach who also has three sons who play. Steele said players typically only get one night of practice a week to accommodate all the teams that share the fields.

The shortfall in capital funding also has ramifications for the plans to eventually bring water and sewer service to the more than 60,000 lots that don't have that access today.

Already, the city's Utilities Department is proposing borrowing more than $143 million in the next five years to expand the service across the city.

But the City Commission would have to call for voter-approved bonds to pay for that, and it's unclear if there is support for that right now. And Crowell has said he is wary of borrowing large sums of money right now.

Meanwhile, revenues continue to lag. The city issued just 68 building permits in March, a far cry from the average of 360 a month the city granted in 2005.

"The problem is that things aren't very stable economy-wise," said Commissioner Vanessa Carusone. "It's almost like everything is upside down."

Crowell will give the commission his recommendations on a five-year building plan soon.