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Pasco neighborhoods have new watchman

The new community development head wants to step up water and sewer improvements, new roads and housing loans.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

Pretty subdivisions increasingly dot the county.

But that's not in George Romagnoli's line of vision when he talks about beautifying Pasco.

Romagnoli has a mission to tackle the county's poverty and declining areas one neighborhood at a time.

Romagnoli is the new manager of the county's community development department.

Promoted to the post last month, Romagnoli promises that, despite the building boom, he's not going to forget about residents already here.

"Our focus is going to be on going into residential neighborhoods that have high poverty levels and many capital needs and social needs," Romagnoli said. He's trying to set an agenda rather than react to a crisis. Until now, the county has responded to problems in communities once issues were brought to its attention.

And they still will. But Romagnoli wants the office to become more aggressive by stepping up its water and sewer improvements done in places such as Carver Heights and housing programs in Tommytown and, more recently, in Brown Acres.

He wants to target entire neighborhoods for new roads and sewers plus housing loans.

Romagnoli, 40, replaces his former boss, Diane Morris, who retired last September to take care of family members.

As assistant manager since 2000 and the office's housing coordinator since 1993, Romagnoli helped build the department's well-known housing program.

Unlike other counties, which give grant money to low-income families, Pasco helps families buy and rehab homes by lending them money at low-interest rates. The department's loans also help families get into a house by helping with a down payment.

With threatened cuts in federal and state funding, other counties are scrambling to make up their housing money, Romagnoli said.

But because Romagnoli stressed loans instead of grants, Pasco gets back between $1.5-million to $2-million a year in loan payments.

"We wanted to have a sustained housing program," he said. "If the state and feds cut money, we could keep some programs to help with affordable housing." The money paid back on the loans goes right back into the pot of funds to loan out to other families.

To date, the county has $20-million in outstanding home loans, he said. About 350 to 400 families a year benefit from the loans to buy or fix up their homes.

Last year, with Romagnoli's leadership and the urging of County Commissioner Pete Altman, the county targeted for redevelopment three west Pasco neighborhoods with sagging tax values. It has started with Brown Acres, holding community meetings and cleanup days and offering low-interest house buying loans.

Romagnoli, who makes an annual salary of about $60,500, now oversees a $9.5-million budget and 12 staff members.

He got his start in the business as a planner for the city of Largo from 1989 to 1992. While there, he ditched his specialty of urban planning, for which he'd earned his master's degree from Florida State University in 1989.

In Largo, he began to focus on housing.

"I think it's the best type of planning," he said. "Long-range plans sit on the shelf. In zoning, everyone hates your guts. Transportation is boring. In this, you get to see the people you help. You see the difference you make."

Aside from his job, Romagnoli is actively involved in the Boy Scouts, which made an impact on his own youth in St. Petersburg after his father died when he was 11.

Romagnoli now is vice president for properties for the West Central Florida Council of the Boy Scouts.

He also sits on state committees, including the Affordable Housing Study Commission.

Mike Nurrenbrock, the county's budget director and Romagnoli's boss, said he got the job out of 40 applicants.

"He's obviously got the educational requirements," Nurrenbrock said. But he's full of good ideas, too, and he's plugged in, Nurrenbrock added.

"He's constantly giving me information about what is going on in Tallahassee," Nurrenbrock said. He credits Romagnoli for making the housing program what it is today.

"He really built the housing section of community development from scratch."

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