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COUNTY DID RIGHT THING CONTINUING 211 SUPPORT

Tucked away in Pasco County's $980-million budget for the three-week-old fiscal year is an imperative appropriation of $150,000 - the county's share of running the 211 help line for people in need.

Tuesday morning, with no fanfare, Pasco Commissioners approved a contract with United Way of Pasco to continue the operation. It's a commendable spending decision that is easy to overlook amid the public dialogue accompanying tax rates, the economy, job recruitment, foreclosures and the ongoing political campaigns.

Since its inception in Pasco County in 2006, the call line has proved a valuable resource in referring people to the appropriate places for help whether its a place to stay, information about high school diplomas or managing the utility bills.

Unfortunately, business is booming. Over the past month, the call volume at 211 was up more than 50 percent compared to the same time a year ago. The top reason for calling is people needing financial assistance. More people are seeking help with utilities, buying food and obtaining health care in the economic downturn.

And the people calling are your neighbors. Among others, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, retail workers, and hospitality and beverage industry employees are asking for help.

"It's surprising how many people are losing their jobs,'' said Becky Scarlato, the help line's program manager, who noted 211 assisted three waitresses, with a combined 49 years of experience, who were let go by a national restaurant chain.

The 211 line is averaging nearly 2,500 calls a month for the past three months and in September, the service received 2,451 calls, a 56 percent increase over September 2007.

"It's gotten scary out there,'' said Susan White, executive director of the United Way of Pasco, "but this is a time to be thankful it's not any worse than it is, that, in fact, 211 is still there.''

Indeed. Though, 211 funding didn't seem in doubt, commissioners and their staff acknowledged over the summer that $381,000 in county funding to charities was likely to go. Yet, the money was intact when administrators presented the proposed budget in July and commissioners adopted it in September.

It was smart thinking. It would be imprudent to cut aid to the needy at a time when more people are finding themselves in need most.

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