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Pasco County Commission promises funding for programs in peril

DADE CITY — Commissioners on Tuesday promised $240,000 for two programs that were on the chopping block: the swimming pool at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson and the nonprofit alternative school AMIkids.

Now it's County Administrator John Gallagher's job to find $100,000 in next year's budget to keep the pool open for the summer swim season. He must also find $140,000 to help cover the transportation costs for AMI, which lost a key state grant in May and signed an agreement last month with the Pasco School District to stay afloat.

Gallagher said he would not cut other programs that were included in the budget he proposed in July, and he also would not tap reserves. He plans to ask his staff to look at updated revenue and expenditures, such as unspent money from constitutional officers and a smaller-than-expected bill for Medicaid services.

"There's a pretty good possibility I'll be able to find the money," Gallagher said.

Last summer, parks director Rick Buckman proposed closing the Hudson pool and the pool at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex to save money for general park upkeep. The Land O'Lakes Lightning swim club agreed to take over operations at the Land O'Lakes pool in exchange for being able to use it more and offer swim lessons.

The club tried a similar arrangement in Hudson, but could only recruit about 20 swimmers for a team. So commissioners on Tuesday agreed to keep the pool open using tax money for another summer as officials work with outside groups to offset operations costs.

Commissioner Jack Mariano argued the pool serves kids who might not have many other recreation options. He also noted that four high school swim teams train there. "Those programs will disintegrate if we don't keep the pool open for them," he said.

The county has closed two pools in recent years. The YMCA in Zephyrhills has helped take the place of the Hercules Aquatic Center. And swimmers who used to go to the Grove Park pool can either swim at the New Port Richey YMCA or the city's aquatic center.

Unlike those two pools, Buckman said, "Veterans Memorial Park is in a location of the county where we do not have a backup."

Buckman has been working with various groups to raise money. The YMCA plans to offer a silver sneakers exercise program for seniors. He is also talking to the high school coaches to improve marketing for the pool. The Lightning and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point could also play a role.

• • •

The money for AMIkids is intended as a one-time grant. The well-regarded alternative school formerly known as the Marine Institute has been serving kids since 1993 but lost part of a key state grant with the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Local legislators blasted the move and promised to find other money to keep the school open. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said there's "a good chance" that money could be included in next year's state budget. But that money wouldn't be available until July, meaning the school must fill a yearlong gap.

The $140,000 from the county would pay for gas, maintenance and salaries for two bus drivers. The county's share could be decreased if the school collects enough unspent campaign money from Fasano and other politicians.

Commissioners quickly approved the money for the school, arguing it was a one-time expense for a good cause. "The Marine Institute, it does a phenomenal thing for the kids," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri.

As part of a plan to stay afloat, AMI found a new location from the school district last month.

Under an agreement with the district, AMIkids can use the old Richey Elementary School building to provide day services to 50 at-risk students who can't attend traditional schools or other programs.

AMIkids must provide a principal, three teachers, a behavioral specialist and an instructional assistant. It also will have to pay its utility bills, telephone and Internet costs, as well as pay the district $1,500 a month in rent.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco County Commission promises funding for programs in peril 08/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 28, 2012 6:12pm]
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