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Pasco considers allowing utility customers to round up bills to fund nonprofits

DADE CITY — As they put together this year's budget, Pasco commissioners found themselves divided over whether to give taxpayer money to social service agencies.

Ultimately, they decided to give $300,000 to the 18 agencies with missions ranging from helping the homebound elderly to providing emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. But the vote was close, 3-2.

Now, Commissioner Ted Schrader, who was on the losing end of that vote along with Commissioner Pat Mulieri, has floated another idea for funding the agencies without taxpayer dollars:

Giving the county's 93,000 utility customers the option of rounding up their bills — with the extra change each month going toward the social service agencies.

Schrader, who pitched the idea at Tuesday's commission meeting, said in an interview that "the board is fully supportive of these agencies and their work."

But what he heard from constituents is: "Let me make the choice" about what charities to support.

The plan would be modeled on Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative's "Operation Round-Up" program, which allows customers to round up their power bills to the nearest dollar.

About 25,000 of the cooperative's roughly 200,000 customers participate in the program. The average contribution is 49 cents per month.

All of those donations, which are tax-deductible, are used to help individuals who have applied for financial assistance.

Since 1994, Operation Round-Up has provided more than $2.3 million to more than 400 families.

This year, cooperative officials expect to raise another $120,000 through the program, said spokesman David Lambert.

"I do believe it's something the county government could do, but each program is set up differently," said Lambert, who has discussed the cooperative's program in detail with county utility officials.

Schrader had actually pushed for a similar program a few years back, but county utility officials told him to hold off because they weren't sure if they had the right technology to make the program work.

"We do need a tool to do it," utilities director Bruce Kennedy told commissioners Tuesday. "It's on our list."

"That's all I've been hearing since we started this process," Schrader responded. "We've got to have some kind of definitive answer."

"I hear you loud and clear," Kennedy said.

To fund or not?

In the initial budget for the current year, the entire funding for the agencies — about $381,000 the previous year — had been cut. Agency directors appeared before commissioners and told them that the cut was detrimental to their operations.

The loss of local funding was especially significant, they said, because the money leverages other grants.

The three commissioners who voted to restore the money said the utility program could be a good fit as long as it generates enough money for the agencies.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, a retired social worker who has long advocated for funding the agencies, said she was interested in Schrader's idea but continues to have a philosophical disagreement over the issue: "I believe in the funding of outside agencies."

Commissioner Michael Cox, who voted back in September with Hildebrand and Commissioner Jack Mariano to support the funding from the county budget, suggested that the funding might even end up higher from the utility program.

"If we can agree we're able to do this and start ramping it up, that could be a replacement" funding source, he said, adding that the agencies would need to step up and begin running campaigns.

Schrader raised the issue after getting a request from a couple of agency officials to meet with him this week about funding for next year.

One of them, Susan Arnett, president of United Way of Pasco County, said Thursday she and others are trying to talk now with public officials about what exactly their groups do with the financial support.

"People are generally supportive if they understand how it's going to be used," she said. "I think we've become too comfortable that there is an understanding."

She said the county's version of Operation Round-Up "in theory, sounds like a beautiful idea."

And if it works, great. But she disagrees with Schrader's position that government shouldn't fund the nonprofits.

Arnett noted that many agencies provide services for people who are also workers in the businesses that Pasco works so hard to recruit and retain.

"If you invest all your resources in just one area, the other areas are going to suffer," she said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco considers allowing utility customers to round up bills to fund nonprofits 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 8:43pm]
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