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Charitable donations through water utility payments needs a quick answer

Pasco County commissioners want county water customers to help finance their charitable giving. It's a sound idea that would allow the public to voluntarily contribute pennies each month to be distributed once a year to 18 agencies helping the jobless, seniors, at-risk children and other people in need.

The idea from Commissioner Ted Schrader — if it can overcome obstacles from the commission's own staff — is modeled after a similar program from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. It calls for allowing Pasco County utility customers the option of rounding up their monthly bill payments to the next whole dollar amount. Even if just a quarter of the county's 92,000 water customers participate and agree to give an average of 50 cents each month, it would produce $138,000 annually.

It's sizeable supplement to overcome the $82,000 that commissioners cut from the outside agencies in September when they reduced the annual allocation to $300,000. But that is key. The dollars should supplement, not supplant, the county's own commitment.

For the past two years, that commitment has scraped by on 3-2 votes with Schrader and Commissioner Pat Mulieri dissenting amid the stated rationale that the county shouldn't be using taxpayers' money to help fund private social service agencies, no matter how worthwhile the work.

Curiously, there is no such philosophical conflict shown when the commission distributes federal tax dollars via allocations from the U.S. Community Development Block Grant program. This year's allocations include $100,000 to the Joining Hands Community Mission's resource center, $46,000 for prescription drugs and other costs for Good Samaritan Health Clinic patients and $10,000 for job-placement services at Connections Job Development Corp.

Helping the homeless, medically needy and the unemployed are all worthwhile causes and the commission should be commended for the distributions. So, why the reluctance to appropriate property tax receipts if it's okay to spend federal income taxes for the same purpose?

That convoluted logic aside, the commission is wise to try to find more dollars for the groups that help relieve the stress on the county's own limited human services department, particularly because the outside agencies parlay the local dollars into matching grants from other sources.

Schrader wisely cut off a prior suggestion to use Penny for Pasco dollars for social work, pointing out those capital construction dollars were predetermined and publicized during the campaign to win voter approval for the tax. Likewise, an off-hand suggestion that Pasco entertain a new property tax for social services is unrealistic politically given the expected push for a future transit tax. So, for now, the utility bill contributions are a reasonable way to raise money.

The commission, however, needs to ride herd over its staff to accomplish the task. Eight months ago, the utility department sidetracked a commission debate over imposing a water surcharge on heavy users by saying it could not differentiate between customers using excessive water for irrigation and a large family with high water use for bathing and laundry.

Now, the stakes have gone from punitive to altruistic. The commission should demand an expedited response. Help for people who are fleeing an abusive relationship; unemployed; hungry; developmentally disabled or medically needy hangs in the balance.

Charitable donations through water utility payments needs a quick answer 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 1:06pm]
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