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Marines are indignant, fairgrounds group digs in

If you like God, country and family, Toys for Tots is the charity for you.

It's run by Marine Corps veterans, many of whom risked their lives in combat. Last Christmas — the Lord's birthday, of course — they gave away 21,000 toys to 1,100 needy families, and, with the economy sagging, will probably give away more this year.

"No child should have to go without Christmas,'' said Bob Ross, the program coordinator and a Vietnam veteran.

Who can argue with that? And why, for goodness sake, would anyone want to jerk these guys around, which is what the Hernando County Fair Association seems to be doing?

See, for several years, the Marine Corps League has stored toys and staged its giveaway at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, on U.S. 41 in Brooksville. The rent is outrageous, Ross said, and at a meeting in August, fairgrounds manager Joy Jackson told the league it would also have to pay hundreds of dollars for utilities in 2008.

"They are bleeding the daylights out of us,'' said Ross, 64, who said the demands had driven the league from the fairgrounds. After a week of scrambling, he said, he thinks he has found a replacement venue, Central High School.

Then I talked to fair association president Sandy Nicholson, who told me that, technically, those brave and generous Marines had walked out of a rental agreement owing nearly $7,000.

Six weeks' rent for the youth livestock building last year came to $11,250, she said, which the association allowed the league to pay in volunteer maintenance work at the rate of $10 per hour.

So far, she said, the Marine veterans have put in only about 450 hours of labor. And it isn't even their labor. Under an agreement reached after a similar blowup two years ago, inmates from the Hernando County Jail complete the hours for the mostly older league members.

At the meeting in August, Jackson asked league members to chip in if they had useful skills, such as carpentry, and to supervise the inmates rather than leaving that job to the fair association.

"All they have to do is watch them,'' Nicholson said.

This brings me to some advice I have for anyone who deals with reporters: Try to be the last person they speak to, because we are usually most sympathetic right after an interview.

The league, it seemed, had gotten pretty arrogant after all those years running a politically bulletproof charity. It should chip in like other nonprofits that use the fairground. And, certainly, the association needs help taking care of its collection of leaking, sagging corrugated steel buildings.

Time passed and, inevitably, I thought about the other side; $11,250 seemed a little high, or insane, really, considering my wife pays less than that for two months' rent of a 5,000-square-foot store.

Consider, also, the county deeded the fairgrounds to the association earlier this year, making it easier for the group to raise money and, I think, obliging it to accommodate other nonprofits whenever possible.

So, no, I didn't find any naked hypocrisy here, no pure villains like the Wall Street CEOs who collect millions for running companies into the ground.

I found what I usually find in community disputes: two sides that could have, and should have, given a little more ground.

Marines are indignant, fairgrounds group digs in 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 10:21am]

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