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When needs exceed funds, congeniality goes out the door

There is no financial beauty pageant in Tallahassee.

"This year's budget is a lot more ugly than last year's,'' understated Rep. Robert Schenck. Bert Parks, he's not.

The Spring Hill Republican, whose District 44 includes parts of Hernando and Pasco counties, set the tone in Brooksville on Tuesday and the dreary outlook continued Friday afternoon at Mitchell High School in west Pasco as area legislators gathered for their annual delegation meetings. With a $3.6 billion budget deficit confronting lawmakers plus a newly elected governor who insists tax cuts are viable, the tone of the meetings was all too familiar.

It is the fourth year of the legislators' empty-pockets refrain. So, the public officials, nonprofit agency heads, and advocates for the needy did their best to compete for the congeniality award. They didn't ask for more money. They asked for rebalancing. Flexibility. Repositioning. All budget buzz words that translate to "Let us decide how to spend the money.''

They want resources for classrooms. They want anti-smoking programs for teenagers. They want jobs. They want juveniles protected. They want the elderly fed and cared for in their own homes. They want the developmentally disabled served and taken off a 17,000-person waiting list. They want prosecutors available to put criminals in jail.

And, it wouldn't be a delegation meeting in Hernando, if somebody didn't want something done to or about the Spring Hill Fire District. This time it was a requested recall of the winners of the November election. Such pettiness.

A pitch for a more imperative do-over came from the people charged with preparing adults to enter the workforce. They too want their budgets spared because the high unemployment rates in Hernando and Pasco means no shortage of individuals going back to school or looking for retraining.

Enrollment in Florida's College System, the 28 institutions that includes Pasco-Hernando Community College, is up nearly 100,000 students from five years ago while simultaneously the state's per-student spending is off 25 percent. Nearly a quarter of the people enrolled are 35 and older. These are the people seeking to become registered nurses, police officers, EMTs, teachers or moving on to a four-year degree in pursuit of another career.

To serve them, the colleges are asking for a 7.4 percent increase in operating aid. At least on paper. During her remarks, PHCC President Dr. Kathryn Johnson simply asked the Pasco legislators not to cut the colleges' appropriation.

Meanwhile, the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board, absorbed a nearly 30 percent budget cut that helped contribute to a list of 600 people waiting to get into a jobs training program.

Nursing remains the top growth area for the two counties, according to the workforce board. But after that, the employment outlook is as ugly as the state budget. Over the next seven years, the occupations with the highest projected growth include retail sales, food preparation and servers, stock clerks and cashiers.

"We cannot keep on surviving on the service industry,'' Hernando Commissioner John Druzbick said in Brooksville as he pleaded for state help in creating jobs.

The recession hit Florida earlier and harder than much of the country because of the state's reliance on home-building and services as economic engines. The layoffs, foreclosures and shrinking property values diminish local government revenue, but also push the public assistance line out the door and sometimes into other people's homes.

The number of homeless children in Pasco County doubled over a three-year period to more than 4,000 kids said the Rev. Dan Campbell of the Joining Hands Mission and even higher numbers are expected when a new count is conducted in the coming months. Hernando has estimated approximately 300 school-age children who are homeless.

Here's one way legislators can help keep people sheltered: Stop raiding the trust fund that finances the state housing program known as SHIP. It provides money to pay for utility connection fees, or insurance and real estate taxes for low-income seniors and emergency repairs — costs the federal government will not cover under its housing assistance. SHIP hasn't been funded the past two years even though a real estate transfer tax to pay for it has been on the books since 1992.

In other words, reposition the money for its intended use.

In Pasco, only Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie asked legislators for new capital spending while simultaneously commenting on the lack of oversight on the 1st District Court of Appeals building outside Tallahassee.

The people who authorized a $48 million Taj Mahal, McDuffie said, should be able to find a couple of million dollars for an emergency evacuation shelter in east Pasco.

So much for the congeniality competition.

When needs exceed funds, congeniality goes out the door 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 3:31am]

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