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Funding for Lacoochee community center survives state budget ax

David Lambert said he had been on "pins and needles" for several days, awaiting a decision on state money for a new community center in tiny Lacoochee. On Tuesday afternoon, he could finally relax.

"Everybody deserves to definitely take a breather and take some credit for this thing," said Lambert, an executive with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative who has worked with neighborhood leaders to secure funding for the building.

The community center was one of three Pasco projects that survived Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen Tuesday as the governor approved Florida's $70 billion budget. Scott struck $142 million in spending. But that figure was far from last year's veto record of $615 million, including a handful of axed projects that angered local officials.

"Pasco had a good day," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. He pointed to extra money for Pasco's child protective investigators and a new anti-prescription pill abuse program. Each of the three projects received $1 million.

The Lacoochee project likely had the most emotional support. Combined with $900,000 in donations, the state funding is enough for an August groundbreaking for the 12,800-square-foot building in Pasco's poorest community.

The building's primary tenant will be the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club. It also will have a range of services for adults, including the WIC program, job training and basic health care.

Richard Riley, the chairman of a citizens redevelopment committee, said he wants to meet with interested groups over the next few months to finalize plans for the project. He sees the community center as a "tipping point" that could spur a rebound in Lacoochee and nearby Trilby.

"I was dreaming yesterday, waiting for something like this to happen," he said. "Now it's happened. This is something that will bring the ability for our community to come together and work together."

Weatherford also took a special interest in the child protection money. His sister had been a child protective investigator in Pasco before moving out of state.

"She would tell me firsthand that they were underfunded," he said. "They just didn't have the resources necessary to cover the entire county."

Florida law requires six sheriff's offices — Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Broward, Hillsborough and Seminole — to handle such investigations using grants from the Department of Children and Families.

The extra $1 million is on top of Pasco's standard allotment, which this year was $4.6 million. It will allow the Sheriff's Office to fill vacant positions and boost salaries to keep the county on par with Pinellas and Hillsborough. It is expected to be included in future state budgets.

The $1 million in anti-drug money is for a one-year program aimed at treating drug addiction and educating doctors and parents about the dangers of pills that fall into the wrong hands.

A small portion of the money, $75,000, will go to the Sheriff's Office for overtime costs related to policing drug abuse and to create public awareness materials. The rest of the money will go to Baycare Health Services for a campaign that includes the addition of detox beds at its New Port Richey facility. Counseling and treatment represents about a third of the award.

"Pasco County has been identified as being the epicenter of the prescription drug epidemic in the state," said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, who secured funding for the program. "This money will go a long way in saving lives and addressing crime."

One Pasco project that did get the budget ax was a $350,000 pilot drug abuse program by WestCare. The program was to provide electronic monitoring, treatment and counseling to up to 60 nonviolent drug offenders in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

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

Funding for Lacoochee community center survives state budget ax 04/17/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 1:05am]
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