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A parable of Dade City saving its lovely lights

Not many communities outdo Dade City, the seat of Pasco County, in its observation of the holiday season.

There's the Magical Night Christmas Parade, on Dec. 6 this year. It is a fine procession with all of the customary trappings, and civic groups, and high school bands, and local dignitaries, and floats bedecked with lights.

There's the Country Christmas Stroll on Dec. 7, when the stores of Dade City's charming downtown stay open late, their holiday decorations warm and welcoming.

Horse-drawn carriages travel the streets. This year there will be a special store for kids only, no adults allowed, where elves will help kids buy gifts within a preset budget.

Finally, there's Church Street Christmas on Dec. 21 and 22. To be nitpicky, this actually occurs on Church Avenue. The Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches take turns each year arranging the evening. Streets, sidewalks and rooftops are lit by beautiful candles flickering inside weighted white paper bags, and holiday music and carols fill the air.

Given all this, you can understand just how serious a decision it was this year when Dade City whacked all the Christmas decorations out of the city budget.

No Christmas lights!

The city leaders made this decision back in brutal, hot September, when Christmas was a long time away. It was not decided lightly. The City Commission and city manager already had whacked many other things.

They cut out equipment. They cut out capital improvements. They voted to make another institution of local culture, the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, pay full utility rates. They held off on raises for city workers.

Still, they needed more. Finally, they whacked the $5,000 that Dade City customarily paid a vendor to lease and install Christmas lights on downtown utility poles.

That's where matters slumbered until this month, when the weather turned cool and we Floridians turned our thoughts toward the holidays. Only then did the realization of Dade City's budget cuts become widespread.

Ginny Solberg is executive director of Main Street, a nonprofit group that promotes the downtown. It is the very heart of Dade City's identity, the thing that draws a quarter-million visitors a year.

"Dade City," she said proudly, "is apple pie."

Except without Christmas lights.

Then an interesting thing happened. Everybody came forward and offered to help. The city manager even offered to give up his $2,000 raise for the year, which the commission rightly refused to accept.

The churches on Church Avenue volunteered to move their part of the decorations downtown. More than one taxpayer stood up and told the city, let's not be ridiculous here, of course I am willing to pay a little more.

The newspaper (this one, I mean) kicked in some money. So did a downtown property owner. Next thing you know, the city had found a little extra money of its own. Out of all of these efforts, there now appears to be enough for Christmas lights. The usual vendor has already rented his stuff, but the city is optimistic things will work out.

At the risk of reading too much into all this, Dade City's experience with Christmas lights seemed to make a nice little parable about the state of Florida.

We are as penny-wise as we can be. We force our politicians to jump through hoops to prove how stingy they are. We pretend that it is "conservative" for a politician to say: I promise never, ever to pay for what we ought to be paying for, no matter what.

That lasts only until we see the consequences. Then we complain. This is how we can elect an entire slate of politicians who promise never to raise taxes, and in the same election, command them to spend a zillion-gabillion dollars on feel-good ideas like smaller class sizes.

Like I said, I probably read too much into Dade City. But it was a case of reaching a silly result by following a simplistic formula that the public said it wanted. When the consequences became clear, the people said, no, that's not what we meant at all.

"I think people recognized that if we want to maintain our quality of life," Solberg said, "we might have to pay for it."

Imagine that. And to all a good night.

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