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As Front Porch program blooms, funding shrinks

Finally, the Front Porch community revitalization council here has stopped bickering and started working together.

Last week alone, the council approved dollars for six projects, including a loan program, an auto repair training program and a partnership with the city to renovate homes in Midtown.

Front Porch's handprint can be found on a community vegetable garden in the Palmetto Park neighborhood and 10 renovated homes on 12th Avenue S in the 13th Street Heights Neighborhood.

"The state says we're the most improved Front Porch council," said the group's chairman, former City Council member David Welch. "We just started working. We put our focus where it should be, and that's on the community and not on individuals. Everybody can't be a star. Everybody can't be a leader. We're doing just fine."

But just as the local Front Porch is hitting its stride, the 2-year-old state program launched by Jeb Bush during his campaign for governor may suffer some deep budget cuts.

During last month's special session, legislators cut $1.5-million in Front Porch funds distributed by the Department of Juvenile Justice, which handed out about $279,000 for youth programs in St. Petersburg last year. Lawmakers left alone about $3.8-million for other Front Porch programs.

Bush's spokeswoman said he is still committed to funding the Front Porch program, which expanded from the original six communities to 11 earlier this year. But she acknowledged that nothing is sacred.

"Since we as a state recognized what we are facing as a result of Sept. 11, the governor has acknowledged that we need to look at everything," said Elizabeth Hirst.

Each of the Front Porch councils received $100,000 from the state this year to revitalize their communities. Alison Hewitt, director of the Office of Urban Opportunity, said she thinks that money is safe, but she also realizes anything can happen.

The budget uncertainty comes as the local Front Porch council seems to have gotten its act together.

The council argued so much that Hewitt disbanded it a year ago and had the community choose a new one. Of those 25 new members, just 19 remain. There are still disagreements, but the members don't shout at each other during meetings.

"We've come to the conclusion that we have a right to disagree, then the vote prevails," said member Ernest Fillyau, also a former City Council member.

For example, Welch said he didn't agree with the lending program approved by the revitalization council at its recent meeting. The council set aside $10,000 for small loans, so that someone wanting to start up a lawn business can borrow $1,000 for a lawn mower and other equipment.

"I didn't think it was enough to start a loan program. I thought it would get people into debt," he said. "But it was the vote of the board."

The council also will spend $15,000 renovating 10 houses in the 13th Street Heights neighborhood in a partnership with the city's housing program. And the council formed a partnership with the Pinellas Technical Center for Education and Auto Way Toyota and provided $10,000 to start an auto repair training program that would help Midtown residents obtain a GED, auto repair training and a job.

To let everyone know what they're doing, council members are spending $1,200 on a half-hour weekly radio program in December that will describe how Front Porch has benefited the community, said the program's community liaison, Lolita Dash.

But since the radio program will mention only "positive news" about the community, it is unlikely to mention the loss of Front Porch funds this year.

The Department of Juvenile Justice doled out the largest amount of Front Porch funds of any state agency, and it suffered the deepest cuts.

This is the agency that two years ago awarded a $30,000 Front Porch grant to the fledgling for-profit recording company of a man with a 12-year history of drug and weapons convictions.

The grant program has since changed. Last year, just six groups received funds for youth programs, including $34,200 to the Juvenile Services Program Inc. for an after-school juvenile delinquency prevention program and $42,000 to Mt. Zion Human Services for a business training program for children.

The Department of Juvenile Justice was about to award this year's funds when legislators cut the money.

Diane Hirth, a spokeswoman for the agency, said at this point she doesn't expect lawmakers to restore any of the cuts when they convene for a second special session on Nov. 27. Rather, she's bracing for even deeper cuts.