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Don't cut off needy when cutting the budget

“Charity begins at home'' will take on new meaning around Pasco County in the coming months. Though the unveiling of the county's proposed budget is still a month away, administrators are expected to call for ending Pasco's long-standing policy of contributing to outside charity groups.

"A foregone conclusion,'' said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, a former social worker and the commission's biggest champion of funding the agencies.

The proposed $381,000 cut comes after the county announced a salary freeze for employees, reduced operating hours at libraries and recreation centers, and new fees. The measures are part of the attempt to balance a budget that will see a $16-million revenue shortfall attributed to new residential property tax exemptions approved by voters in January.

In the meantime, county budget writers also must identify $500,000 to help match a $5-million economic incentive grant approved by state legislators. In other words, the county will budget money to help lure new jobs at the same time it cuts money to help, among others, people who've lost their jobs here.

The current county budget includes $381,000 for the outside charity groups, the equivalent of $1 for each resident in unincorporated Pasco. The county also funds its own social services department and provides money to charity groups via pass-through federal grants.

Last year, Hildebrand, along with commissioners Michael Cox and Jack Mariano, successfully blocked an attempt to cut the general fund allocation in half. The United Way of Pasco reviews the grant applications and recommends how the money is distributed.

And while the county cuts are looming, at least the community is attempting to take care of its own. The United Way campaign reached its $1.6-million goal for the year, a 12 percent increase from a year ago.

Losing the money won't mean agencies will be closing their doors, said United Way president Susan Arnett, but a greater concern is whether the money will be reinstated in the future. Historically, the county has been reluctant to restore service cuts, the most notable example being reduced hours at its libraries.

The proposed cut to the outside agencies is unrelated to the 211 system funded by the county and United Way, which directs people in need to the appropriate social agency. That is imperative. Calls to the service for the first six months of the year are up significantly over the same time a year ago as the economy has worsened.

The call volume from people needing financial assistance — the top reason people contact 211 — is up 37 percent this year compared to 2007. Likewise, more people are seeking help buying food, obtaining health care or mental health services, shelter, or reporting abuse/neglect or asking for help with substance abuse.

"Their needs are huge. It seems like the community itself is in state of depression,'' said Arnett. "211 at least can provide a voice of hope and sometimes hope is all you can get.''

Indeed. If the county is unable to help fund outside charity work, it should ensure, at the minimum, resources remain to point the needy in the right direction for assistance.

Don't cut off needy when cutting the budget 06/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 10:05am]
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