NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County's elderly nutrition program is safe. Two of the county's poorest communities also will get to keep Officer Friendly sheriff's deputies, as county commissioners dug into reserves to keep the popular programs afloat in a tight budget year.
But the fixes are good only for this year. Commissioners will have to look for other revenues if they want to continue the programs after that point.
"It isn't just food," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said of the nutrition program, which provides 800 meals a day through dining centers and home deliveries. "It's feeding their minds, feeding their emotions."
Until Tuesday's unanimous commission vote, the meal program's fate was in limbo. Federal budget cuts had resulted in an anticipated shortfall of about $83,000. Clients came out in droves to encourage commissioners to find the money. Commissioners voted to use $39,000 in private donations to maintain the program and take the remaining $44,000 from reserves.
"For some people, it's their only meal they get in a day," volunteer Dot Cote said.
Community services director Liz Harris said Pasco's program relies on 14 staffers and "a significant army" of 475 volunteers. Dining sites are county owned or rent free. Hillsborough, by comparison, has 14 volunteers for its program.
Commissioners agreed the program was worthy, but differed on how to pay for it in the future. One option presented was privatization.
"I think you would lose so much," Mulieri said, a position supported by Commissioner Jack Mariano.
But commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Henry Wilson said other options should be explored.
"I'm very much in support of making sure our elderly are fed," Starkey said, noting that there's a 125-person wait list. "But I'm not sure that's best served by us." She suggested partnering with a seniors' group such as CARES, which provides adult day care.
As for Officer Friendly, county officials had already allocated $84,000 in federal money for that program but were limited by law from spending more, unless it was cut from another program. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco funded part of the costs in the past, which totaled about $120,000, to pay the salaries, benefits and equipment of the two deputies who work in Tommytown and Lacoochee.
But Nocco, citing a tight budget, did not fund the program. The county's share was enough to pay for one deputy.
On Tuesday, commissioners agreed to use reserves for the remaining $36,000.