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Getting involved in community is key to Pasco's quality of life

"Younger, smarter and richer'' read the headline a week ago over a Times story about the demographic changes in Pasco County since 2000.

Turns out, it could easily have added a fourth adjective: Isolated.

That is one of the findings in the just-released results of a mail-back poll of randomly selected Pasco County residents by National Citizen Survey on behalf of the county government's ongoing restructuring and strategic planning. The survey was mailed to 1,200 households and 368 (32 percent) responded. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent.

Sure, the majority of people who have interacted with county employees have a positive perception of the workers and some of the things that drew the most negative responses were the lack of employment opportunities and road congestion. No real surprises.

But delve a little deeper and the survey shows there is a genuine lack of public engagement beyond the voting booth. Most of those answering the survey had not attended a public meeting, volunteered time to a group or participated in a club in the past year. This goes hand in hand with the younger, smarter and richer demographic that was detailed separately for county commissioners at a recent meeting.

"People are busy living their lives,'' said Commissioner Michael Cox. "It seems like we only see people when they're mad.''

This isn't a phenomenon unique to county government, incidentally. The Pasco School District annually solicits public opinions via a parent survey and the response this year was a paltry 9 percent — making the responses for most of the individual schools statistically invalid.

Here's why: People are focused on their careers and families. They are distracted by the daily drive to Tampa or elsewhere for work (nearly 90,000 of them leave the county each day for their jobs) and the rush home to get kids fed and transported to dance, sports or whatever school function might be on the calendar. Their sense of community — if one exists — is constructed around families in similarly harried lifestyles.

They are the fortunate ones. The county survey in March came amid escalating unemployment — Pasco is higher than the state and national average — and home foreclosure filings that are on a pace to hit 10,000 cases this year. It's safe to say people are preoccupied with more personal situations.

All that helps to explain some survey responses that showed fewer Pasco residents like where they live, the quality of life offered in their community, or would recommend Pasco as a place to reside when compared to how people elsewhere around the country feel about their communities.

My guess is a large number of the transients that helped swell Pasco's population by 36 percent this decade to more than 471,000 residents think of this as a place to live, but not a place to call home. That doesn't mean the majority of people hate it here. In fact, 71 percent rated the quality of life in Pasco as good or excellent, but that percentage is less than the national average as measured by the National Citizen Survey in its polls of 500 local communities.

The survey is one of a trio of methods the county used to gauge public opinion on local government, value of services, amenities, budgets and other issues. Residents also participated in town-hall meetings in which they could answers questions electronically and met in focus groups. The mail survey results, however, should carry the greatest weight because they are random.

So, how do you engage people? The survey and town-hall meetings are a start. The county has never done that before. Its public opinion information, beyond scientific polling shared by campaigns at election or referendum time, is often anecdotal or skewed by special interests. Volunteer opportunities certainly abound and there will be more available as governments look to the public to help it maintain services at libraries, parks and elsewhere.

The full survey results are available on the county Web site by clicking on the LEAP Into Excellence button on the left.

But the consultants said the results suggested four long-term goals for the county: Improve services, and build more civic engagement, a better community quality of life and a stronger public trust.

It's a worthy target. Imagine if next go round "younger, smarter and richer'' are topped by two other adjectives:

Caring and involved.

Getting involved in community is key to Pasco's quality of life 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 11:33am]
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