NEW PORT RICHEY — Locked gates and more fencing at the river overlook at Sims Park could send the wrong message to visitors to the city, City Council members decided Wednesday night.
“It’s going to look like a jail cell,” Councilwoman Judy DeBella Thomas said about the proposal, adding the city needs to project a “welcoming” vibe at the landmark Gene Sarazen River Overlook.
The structure at the foot of the bridge over the Pithlachascotee River often is one of the first landmarks visitors to the city see.
Vagrants sleeping in the overlook aren’t welcoming for visitors, Councilman Jeff Starkey countered. He adamantly argued for the gates, saying city park employees could lock at night to limit access.
A council majority, however, rejected the double gate facing Main Street and more fencing to enclose the overlook tower, which would have cost $12,500.
Instead, the council opted to beef up security with more floodlights at the park and posting of eight more signs to alert people that the park closes at sunset.
The lights and signs would assist police officers in patrolling the park, council members argued. Police Chief Kim Bogart said officers could more easily issue trespass warnings or citations, or take a repeat trespasser to jail.
Starkey argued the gates at the overlook would give police more authority to “chase off undesirables.” Bogart and park officials, however, believed that vagrants could still jump over fences on the other side of the overlook to bypass the gates.
“You’d just chase vagrants elsewhere,” Councilman Chopper Davis said about locking the overlook at night.
“It’s almost a contradiction,” Bogart said about blocking access to the overlook tower. The unique feature draws tourists, one of the goals of the city, he said.
Starkey complained that in one instance a vagrant slept in the overlook five nights in a row.
When the police department got a phone call about a vagrant, officers acted, Bogart said. It’s difficult to see if a person is lying on the floor of the overlook tower, he said, especially from a passing patrol car.
The lighting option the council chose would add four floodlights that Duke Energy would install free, according to a memo from Parks and Recreation Director Elaine Smith. The electric bill for the four extra lights would be about $160 a month.
The city plans to install another flood light at the picnic shelter and two more floodlights along the river walk. Installation would cost $1,770 and a monthly charge of $160.
The eight additional signs would cost $250.
Seeking to curb crime, vagrancy and chronic nuisances in the city, council members responded to complaints of residents. During a Sept. 4 meeting, more than a dozen homeowners had expressed dismay about what they view as an escalating level of crime.
A bullet fired into a home along Grand Boulevard galvanized the residents. Authorities, however, were uncertain if the bullet was fired by accident or intentionally.
The residents demanded changes to “take back the city,” as Chuck Grey and others put it.
Many volunteered to serve on crime watch groups or patrols. Bogart said he is eager to establish volunteer programs, but he has concentrated first on hiring and training to bring the police department back to full strength.