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Bicounty commuters: live here, work there

More Pasco workers leave the county to go to work than those in any other bay area county, and that has a price.

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Donna Balk, 37, whisks past her daughter with a basket of laundry as Jillyan Balk, 8, finishes getting dressed for school. Balk and her husband leave Pasco every workday for jobs in other counties.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


Click here for an interactive graphic.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Every workday, Jeff and Donna Balk get up, get four kids ready for school, get into the family cars and head out from their home in Orchid Lake.

Jeff Balk usually begins an hourlong journey to a job site for his employer, an Oldsmar construction company. After dropping off the kids at various schools, Donna Balk also heads toward Pinellas to her job cutting hair in Clearwater.

"I used to love driving around," she said. "Now I hate it."

They aren't alone.

During the week, 45 percent of Pasco County's working folk -- almost 60,000 of them -- leave the county to go to their jobs. Pasco feeds a larger percentage of its workers to other counties than any other county in the bay area.

The information on how many Pasco residents leave to go to work, along with dozens of other demographic categories, comes from the 2000 census. It surveyed about one in six households nationwide on a variety of subjects, ranging from commuting times to house size. The survey results were released last week and are subject to some sampling error.

In 1990, Pasco sent an even higher percentage of its workers elsewhere -- 62 percent. But the 1990s were a decade of growth -- Pasco added 63,000 residents. While 20,000 more workers now leave the county to work than a decade ago, a majority -- 55 percent -- stay.

That more than half of workers stay in Pasco surprised Mary Jane Stanley, the executive director of the Pasco County Economic Development Council. In a county where the largest employers are the schools and the government, keeping large numbers of workers in the county is hard, she said.

"We don't have enough professional opportunities in Pasco County," she said. "We keep trying to work at it.

"You just can't move enough companies here fast enough as fast as Pasco is growing."

Time and money

Longer commutes across county lines are expected in central Pasco areas like Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel. That's the tradeoff for quiet suburban living.

But commute times in far less affluent areas of west Pasco are just as long. And people drive nearly as far to make less money than their white-collar counterparts in central Pasco.

For instance, the heart of Land O'Lakes -- north of the county line, south of Ehren Cutoff, east of U.S. 41 and west of Collier Parkway -- fits the suburban stereotype. Nearly 70 percent of workers leave Pasco and drive an average of about 32 minutes to go to work. The midpoint household income there is $55,651.

In the Holiday area south of Lake Conley and west of U.S. 19, predominantly made up of the Holiday Lake Estates, 65 percent of workers leave Pasco to go to work. They also have a 32-minute commute. The midpoint household income there is $28,530.

Stanley said that typically, "the more you make, the further you're willing to commute."

"If you're making $8 an hour, you're not going to drive an hour," she said.

But round trip, some west Pasco low-income workers are, and Stanley said that's unusual.

"You'll put up with anything for a while, especially the way the economy is going," she said.

The expense of having a car -- and the reliance on it to get to a job -- has a greater impact on people who can less afford one.

Car pooling is far more common in the less affluent areas of west Pasco like Holiday and New Port Richey. Still, nearly 7 out of 10 workers drive to work alone. In the more affluent areas, such as Trinity in west Pasco and Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel in central Pasco, 85-90 percent of workers drive alone to work.

Donna Balk says life is made immeasurably easier by her husband having a company car, with a company gas card. They're working now toward getting their oldest son a car, so he can help with some of the taxi duty getting his sister and two brothers around.

But there"s a reason Balk is willing to spend the money to drive to Clearwater every day: She can make more money in Pinellas than Pasco, she said. Money the family uses to help pay for its home in Orchid Lake, for athletic shoes for the children. And, some of it pays for the $60 a month she estimated she spends on gas.

What would she do if she could make the same in Pasco and keep the gas money?

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe save it."

Because not much is getting saved now.

"With four kids? No."

Lengthy commutes have significant social impacts beyond just expense: Parents have less time to spend with children, less time for civic and neighborhood groups and have less time to spend at home.

"The car and the commute . . . are demonstrably bad for community life," wrote Robert Putnam in his oft-quoted book on the decline of American social participation, Bowling Alone. "In round numbers, the evidence suggest that each additional 10 minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent -- fewer public meetings, fewer church services attended, less volunteering, and so on."

A drain on time and money and the erosion of community participation makes more difficult the county commission's effort to redevelop areas of west Pasco.

The commission in late July announced plans to target three deteriorating neighborhoods: Holiday Hill and Brown Acres in Port Richey and Sunnydale in Hudson. Those areas have shorter commutes and ship fewer workers out of the county than other parts of west Pasco.

But even in those areas, nearly a third of workers do leave the county and they spend nearly 25 minutes driving to their jobs.

If Putnam's theory of commutes hurting community participation is true, the farther south on U.S. 19 the redevelopment effort goes, the harder it will get to organize neighborhoods to revitalize themselves.

County Commissioner Pete Altman, who has been the biggest proponent of west side revitalization on the commission, isn't detered.

"We want people to think of their community as their community," Altman said. "From an investment standpoint, the county would be wise to make this happen."

Although less money and time from long commutes might be the enemy of revitalization, traffic is the enemy of the Balk family.

Donna Balk, who begins her commute later in the day than her husband, takes care of the morning running around. Jeff Balk has to hustle his way back to New Port Richey in the evening to get four kids where they need to be.

Jason, 17, attends classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Justin, 15, and Jonathan, 11, both play football, but in different leagues. Jillyan, 8, has dance classes each week.

"If he (Jeff) gets stuck in traffic, he's meat," Donna Balk said.

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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