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Pasco is family's large comfort zone

Is Pasco County too big for comfort?

Maybe, says Dave Miller. He has started to think so:

Every time he visits his wife at the sprawling River Ridge Middle/High School complex, where she works as a secretary.

Every time he goes to Mass at the Catholic church that his family attends occasionally. Our Lady Queen of Peace is a large and popular place to worship, he said.

When the subject of county government comes up. He has no complaints about the people or the way things are run, but he also feels powerless to affect change.

"I think, personally _ smaller things work better," he said. "A typical family might get lost."

For this series the Times is showcasing a number of neighborhoods and communities, with the focus on what individuals have to say. Here, in their own words, is how the members of one "typical family" in Pasco County describe themselves and their involvement in their community.

A new home: "There's more of a sense of belonging."

The Millers and their 17-year-old son, Kevin, say that, after six years in Florida, their sense of disorientation has begun to wear off. West Pasco County, for all its recent growth and suburban sprawl, now feels like home to them.

"Anytime you move, it takes time for you to feel like you belong there," Miller said.

"I know more people now," said his wife, Trish. "I can find my way around. There's more of a sense of belonging."

The family's sense of community continues to grow with experience. Each aspect of their life in Florida _ neighborhood, school, church, workplace _ helps define what they feel.

The Millers live in the New Port Richey subdivision of Gulf Harbors, a waterfront community that begins just west of U.S. 19 and ends at the Gulf of Mexico. They have been renting a house for about a year, but have lived in the same neighborhood _ in another home _ for several years.

Miller's job brought them to Florida in August 1989 from Stow, Mass., where they had lived for 10 years. He worked with an electronics manufacturing company that transferred him to their sales office in Tampa. "They wanted to have more sales exposure in the Southeast," he said.

He knew his family would want to live somewhere along the coast. What attracted them to it? "Water. We've always lived near the ocean, wherever we lived."

The family enjoys boating, fishing, water sports and going to the beach. Kevin, who is set to graduate from River Ridge in 1996, is thinking of becoming a commercial ship captain.

The family looked at cities up and down the coast of West Central Florida, from Hudson, in north Pasco County, to as far south as Sarasota. They settled on New Port Richey _ but recalled being uncertain about what to expect.

Neighbors were friendly though they seemed reclusive. Trish Miller recalled going out in the middle of the day to find closed doors and empty streets.

"We were so surprised (that) there was no one out," she said. "We would stand outside and wonder why there wasn't anyone outdoors."

The subdivision offers community resources, such as clubhouses, a swimming pool and a golf course, but the Millers say they tend not to take advantage of them because they seem to be geared more toward the retiree population. "They had a couple of cookouts we went to," she said. "I think it was an age difference."

Kevin mentions what he calls "The Great Pool Debate."

"No splashing in the pools," he said, laughing. "As soon as you walked out of there, they were cleaning up the pool behind you."

They weren't completely isolated, though. Their street ends in a cul-de-sac and Miller said that helps to make his neighborhood feel more neighborly. "We don't socialize with them, but we know them," he said. "We've found people were very helpful. It's secure and safe."

When Trish Miller wanted to make herself feel more a part of her community, she turned to the school system. Their first year, Kevin started sixth grade at Mittye P. Locke Elementary School. She became a volunteer there and joined the parent-teacher organization.

"I wanted to know what was going on," she said. She absorbed information on such topics as class sizes, teacher training, registration methods. "(As) the mom in this family, I needed to do that."

The Millers are convinced that parent involvement is a vital part of the educational process. In Stow, parents had to get to know teachers, school workers and administrators before their children started school.

"If you live here, you just go over there on registration day, you sign up and you go home," Trish Miller "If you don't go in and talk . . . you can't get your kids educated properly. If you're not involved, you won't know it."

"I don't think that you can just turn your kids loose and expect that they are going to get educated," her husband added.

Ambitious experiment: "This is like a very large family."

The Millers have been involved with one of Pasco County's most ambitious experiments: The River Ridge Middle/High School Complex on Towne Center Road in New Port Richey. Trish Miller and Kevin started working there, as volunteers, in the summer of 1991 before it even opened.

"When I first went there, the first time (was) just to go in and look around," she said. "I saw two happy secretaries, just working away. They were thrilled, thrilled to open up a new school. It must have been like building a new home: exhilarating, but what a lot of work. I have seen the school progress."

And, like building a home, there were a few glitches to work out. Understaffing seemed to be a real problem in the beginning, she said, but administrative assistants were added in the 1992-93 school year.

And, "because the campus is so big, it was difficult to find people," she said.

The River Ridge complex stretches nearly a quarter-mile end to end, and current capacity is about 3,000 students.

In its first years the intercoms and the telephone systems were overworked, Kevin said. "Sometimes, at the end of the day, you couldn't call into the school because the phones were so jammed."

A voice mail system, which gives instructions and directs callers to specific departments, helped ease that burden.

"I think our communications have been addressed (but) I think it still can be improved on," Trish Miller said. "This is like a very large family. . . . We're large in size and I think that sometimes, there's a little more communication that we need. The teachers don't all know each other."

"The (physical) plant people are stretched so thin," Kevin said. "These guys are like the hardest-working people I've ever seen."

"The front office is the same way," Miller said. "It's a zoo."

Trish Miller characterizes her workplace a bit differently. "It's challenging," she said. "I love going to work. I have met some very interesting people, and I feel comfortable where I am right now."

Tell us about your community

We'd like to hear from you. HOMETOWN: Building Communities Around Tampa Bay is a look into our communities _ both those that are place-based and those that are created through commonality. Tell us about what you believe unites or divides communities, and about some of the specific needs within them.

There are several ways to reach us.

By mail: Address letters to HOMETOWN, Letters to the Editor, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

By fax: Send to HOMETOWN, Letters to the Editor, (813) 893-8675.

By computer: People who want to send us letters directly from their computers should use this E-mail address:

131:spt001dialcom.tymnet.com

As with all letters, please include your address and phone number.

WHAT RESIDENTS OF PASCO COUNTY SAY

In a poll conducted in March and April, Suncoast Opinion Surveys asked 980 residents in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties about their neighborhoods, their lives at work and at play, and their opinions on issues facing their communities. Here's how residents in Pasco County responded. (In some cases, responses from the general public in all five counties are given in parentheses.) Many of the questions in the survey were open-ended and allowed multiple answers.

What you like most about living here

66% climate / weather

23% people friendly / variety / like friends/family/neighbors

20% beautiful scenery/beach/water/ country/plants/environment/

11% housing/neighborhood/close to things/on water

What you like least about living here

27% traffic congestion/badly planned roads/I-75 construction/lights

8% snowbirds/tourists (slow driving, etc.)

What you say about your neighborhoods

97% feel safe walking during the day

74% feel safe walking at night

78% know most neighbors by first and last names

60% talk with neighbors many times a week

What are the most serious issues facing your communities?

28% crime/vandalism, violence, drugs/judicial system (42%)

16% teens/crime/no respect/nothing to do/need activities (11%)

15% none (9%)

What has gotten better in the past few years?

56% say the stores where we shop

What has gotten worse in the past few years?

62% say the behavior of young people

38% say the public school system

What has stayed the same in the past few years?

56% say the local newspaper

54% say local government

50% say racial equality

How do you live?

34% own home with a mortgage (41%)

49% own home without a mortgage (35%)

16% rent home (23%)

Have you had a member of another race as a guest in your home within the last year?

34% say yes (48%)

66% say no (51%)

Is it worthwhile for children to be bused to school to achieve a racial mix?

19% say yes (19%)

68% say no (73%)

Do you think retirees get more than their fair share from Social Security, about the right amount or not enough?

51% say retirees don't get enough (52%)

31% say retirees get about the right amount (33%)

8% say retirees get more than their fair share (5%)

How recently have you been to other counties in the area _ other than just driving through?

8% have been to Citrus within the past month (6%)

38% to Hernando within the past month (11%)

66% to Hillsborough within the past month (60%)

56% to Pinellas within the past month (46%)

58% never to Citrus (67%)

28% have never been to Hernando (58%)

10% never to Hillsborough (11%)

11% never to Pinellas (15%)

87% are permanent residents (92%)

64% live in single-family homes (62%)

12% work in farming/fishing/forestry (2%)

84% are registered to vote (75%)

PASCO COUNTY

County population

297,900

Median household income

$24,741

Median age

48.3

Race/ethnicity

(White/black/Hispanic /Asian-Pacific Islander

percent of population)

97.1/2/3.7/.6

Sources: 1994 Demographics USA, County Edition; Florida Statistical Abstract 1994

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