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ANSWER COMPLAINT WITH CHARITY, NOT INDIFFERENCE

The Sunday school lesson on loving thy neighbor as thyself is falling on deaf ears along one west Pasco street. There, a 70-year-old woman complained about her neighbor, a Catholic Church-based food pantry that distributes staples to the needy. Her complaints could force the charity to close or move its operations.

Pasco County's zoning department agreed, saying the agency's volunteers are running the pantry in a residential neighborhood, the Lakes at Regency Park, that lacks proper zoning. The by-the-book logic comes even though the agency has been working from the site for five years.

The pantry, run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. James the Apostle Church, operates out of a garage and house across the street from the church on Monarch Drive, near Little Road. This is not a 24-hour-a-day convenience store pushing beer and cigarettes, but a charity giving out food, diapers and other necessities just two hours a day for four days each week. Clients park at the church, not on Monarch Drive where on-street parking is prohibited.

A down economy brought a growing client list and that attracted the unwanted attention from neighbor Janice Reiser. She told Times staff writer Jodie Tillman, food should be distributed from the church building across the street. Reiser's beef is with people lining up near her property for food and the grocery carts that get scattered. (Moving the pantry across the street to the church campus, from where it formerly operated, is a likely alternative, though it leaves the question of food storage unanswered.)

Regardless, it is a callous complaint that brought an indifferent bureaucratic response toward a group of volunteers whose only mission is to give food to the hungry and assistance to the needy. And it comes as demand is growing and likely will continue to increase as the county unemployment rate of 12.2 percent hovers above the statewide average. Meanwhile, the county proposes cuts to is own social services operations and a 21 percent funding reduction to outside charities, to help balance a constrained budget.

The society helped nearly 7,200 families last year including distributing more than 5,500 bags of food during its eight-hours-a-week operation. Countywide, Pasco fields 48,000 telephone calls annually for human services help with pleas for emergency utility payments and shelter topping the requests.

"People are unhappy,'' Pasco Community Service Director Adelaida D. Reyes said last week to county commissioners in describing the calls. "They've lost their jobs and they come in begging. They're embarrassed when they have to come in for the first time.''

Likewise, calls to the 211 help line run by United Way are up 40 percent and the most common requests are for help with utilities, mortgage payments and food.

That the county refers some of its callers to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, says the agency's president, magnifies the insensitivity of the county government's response to the zoning dispute.

Unfortunately, the attitude starts at the top. Wednesday, on a 3-2 vote, commissioners restored some funding to local charities that had been pared from the proposed budget, but they still cut the amount to $300,000. It's a paltry figure to be spread among 18 agencies serving a county with an estimated population of 471,000 people, but Commissioners Ted Schrader and Pat Mulieri wanted to eliminate all of the county's contribution.

It's contradictory to cut social services spending at the same time more people are requesting help. A county that relies heavily on the private sector to help fill gaps in its social services network should be trying to better accommodate the non-profits serving Pasco's most needy residents.

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