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Supporters of Hispanic liaison office expected at budget hearing

The prospect of staff cuts at Hillsborough's Hispanic community liaison office has some residents planning to pack a County Commission budget hearing today.

Organizers know they won't get a chance to address the board, but hope a large presence will remind officials of their growing numbers in the county.

"I'm hoping to draw enough people there so our face says 1,000 words," said Angelette Aviles, who organized the protest. "I wouldn't surprised if people bring in signs. I'm not advocating it, but I wouldn't be surprised."

Budget officials have proposed cutting the staff in the Hispanic community liaison's office from two full-time to one part-time position. The cut, combined with similar reductions in the African-American and Asian-American liaisons' offices, would save about $248,000.

The liaison offers critical translation and outreach services to the area's burgeoning Hispanic community said Aviles, who belongs to several local Hispanic groups.

The Washington, D.C., Pew Hispanic Center ranked Hillsborough 19th out of 3,141 counties for fastest-growing Hispanic communities. The study tallied the number of people who identified themselves as Hispanic in 2007 compared to 2000.

"I know there are a lot of budget cuts going on," Aviles concedes. "It's just amazing with the Hispanic community growing as fast as it is here that there (would not be) at least one full-time person there."

County budget director Eric Johnson said his office has fielded similar complaints from myriad groups. From children's organizations to the elderly, everyone is suffering from the budget shortfall.

When the budget is lean, programs that aren't required should be sliced first, said Bill Browne, chairman of the Town 'N Country Alliance.

Browne, who previously criticized officials for advertising Spanish-language meetings that he considered exclusive, said the liaison's office is just one many budget victims.

"It's one thing to take care of infrastructure, it's another thing to provide for every individual," Browne said. "The government has no money."

The county shouldn't be responsible for transcribing leaflets if it can barely afford to keep sheriff's deputies on the streets, he said.

His position isn't anti-Hispanic, he said, it's just the "sad reality" given the county's balance sheets.

It's also an argument Tony Morejon, the county's Hispanic community liaison, has heard before.

"I do believe, strongly believe, in everything that we do," said Morejon, whose full-time status is on the line. If budget cuts pass, he would be reduced to 20 hours after working full-time since 1994.

Morejon estimates his office receives, on average, about 50 calls or e-mails each day. Some weeks, the demand slows. After appearing on a Spanish-language radio show, the phone rings nonstop, he said.

Morejon hopes the Spanish-speaking population will learn English and not rely on translation. But language proficiency takes time, he said, and those residents need assistance now.

"I think an informed resident is a better neighbor," Morejon said. "If I can get a person information, it makes it better for everybody.

"I understand the administration has a tough job ahead of them," he said. "But the community is going to come and say what they think, and that's their right. After all, we do live in America."

Times staff writer Steven Overly can be reached at soverly@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

Supporters of Hispanic liaison office expected at budget hearing 06/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 11:14pm]

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