TAMPA — They begged county commissioners to protect parks, save senior programs and guard Head Start.
They waved signs and carried banners.
With the Hillsborough County Commission set to eliminate more than 1,100 jobs and trim $140 million from its $1.1 billion operating budget, more than 600 people turned out Thursday evening to show support for their favorite programs. More than 200 people signed up to speak.
"Raise my taxes if you must, but keep my program intact," said Denise Andretta, 57, before collapsing into a chair and fighting off sobs.
Andretta suffers from a brain injury caused by a car accident and has been riding horses for eight years at the county's Bakas Equestrian Center, which caters to physically and mentally challenged adults and children.
The meeting was held in a central county recreation building instead of County Center to accommodate the huge crowd.
Commissioners said little and made no decisions, using the evening as an opportunity to let the public air concerns.
Leonard Plotkin, 58, made his way to the microphone with the help of a cane. He spoke on behalf of Camp Sparks, which serves children with disabilities, Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind and Transportation Disadvantaged Coordinating Board.
"Do not take money from the people who need it," said Plotkin, who lives in Northdale. "The quality of life becomes so small for those people who need someplace to go, a helping hand."
Others invoked the names of their favorite county employees or told their personal stories of triumph thanks to county-sponsored programs.
Shane Robinson, 21, a volunteer at the Ruskin Community Center, stood at the microphone with four young children, one holding a handmade sign reading "Save All Our Coaches." He warned commissioners to make the best decisions or face consequences on election day.
Laquida Jennings, 19, recently graduated from Jefferson High School and plans to attend St. Leo College with the help of scholarships.
"If it wasn't for the Boys and Girls Club, I don't think I'd be traveling down the road I'm on," she said,
Ann-Mary Kapusta, 71, waited patiently for her turn before the commissioners. Her husband, Edward, has Alzheimer's disease and spends two days a week at the Ruskin Senior Center.
"It's an absolute godsend," Kapusta said, praising the center's staff for their dedication. "If he didn't have it, I absolutely couldn't keep him at home. They're essential to my survival."
Mark Nash, an aide to county Commissioner Kevin Beckner, watched from the back of the auditorium as the parade of people made their way to the microphones.
"People involved in their government — it's a beautiful thing," he said. "Our elected officials want to know what the community wants."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.