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Help for Tommytown was right thing to do

Two months ago, Pasco County commissioners lamented planned improvements to Tommytown as too expensive. They would exhaust the county's share of federal money for low-income residents for the next three years.

Tuesday night, commissioners turned the three-year, $7.5-million program into a 20-year deal costing $13-million.

Forget the mathematics. It was the right thing to do.

Commissioners traded long-term, low-interest loan payments for the short-term luxury of sprinkling federal money around to charities. By borrowing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and repaying the loan with Community Development Block Grant funds for the next two decades, the county can embark on the long-planned improvements to Tommytown and still have more than $2-million annually to disburse for other community projects for the needy.

But here are more imperative numbers: Seventy-eight percent of Tommytown's 1,309 residents are poor and 44 percent of the housing there is substandard. The county will pave 4.5 miles of road, build 2.9 miles of sidewalk, and install 15 miles of pipes for sewer, water and drainage.

The work will turn a flood-prone, dust-choked neighborhood of questionable housing into a substantial community worthy of further investment.

"Who will benefit?" one resident asked commissioners. "Our children."

Tommytown, the largely Hispanic neighborhood just north of Dade City, was identified for the improvements three years ago after a similar venture in Carver Heights. In May, however, the cost gave commissioners sticker shock, mostly because it would eat up all of the county's federal block grant allocations _ roughly $3-million annually _ for the next three years.

The scrutiny came as commissioners amended their proposed spending for the coming year, trimming the Tommytown appropriation in order to set aside money for Sunrise of Pasco Inc. The questions continued Tuesday night as county staff presented the borrowing options.

Can we charge assessments to homeowners? How come some non-residents will benefit? And, surprisingly, can we borrow additional money to stretch the improvements south of Lock Street?

That suggestion from Commissioner Ted Schrader was worthwhile, but ill-timed. It drew little support.

Commissioners aren't fond of the Tommytown project, but pushing a forced assessment in a rundown neighborhood is heavy-handed. Likewise, the fixation on absentee landlords _ 141 of the neighborhood's 513 parcels are owned by non-neighborhood residents _ is a disservice to the people who live in Tommytown.

"I chastise myself," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who approved the idea in 1998. "Think of other areas (with poor roads) where people cannot get to their houses."

She complained that some new homes are being built in Tommytown and suggested other interests, beyond neighborhood residents', will benefit.

No kidding.

It's because the county's promise to improve the infrastructure has made Tommytown a more desirable place to live. Residents, builders and bankers responded accordingly. Since targeting the area, the county used federal and state money to demolish 11 vacant and dilapidated homes and provide financing for 33 new single-family homes that are finished or under construction. Repairs were done to six other houses and 15 applications for new or rehabilitated houses are pending.

Despite substantial reluctance, commissioners unanimously approved applying for the loan. The board was correct to continue Pasco County's commitment to Tommytown.

Commission Chairman Steve Simon also was correct to require post-construction reports indicating whether the neighborhood's physical improvements lead to displaced tenants, higher rents or reduced crime.

Knowing the project's long-term benefits should make approval of similar ideas in the future less agonizing.