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    United Way merger nearer

    The board of the Hillsborough agency agrees. Now it's Pinellas' turn to decide.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    The separate United Way organizations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties would merge under a plan approved by Hillsborough's board Wednesday that could come to a vote in Pinellas today.

    A merger would create a $27-million agency spanning Tampa Bay that would be the second-largest United Way in Florida. It also would become one of the largest non-commercial organizations with a strong presence on both sides of the bay.

    "Obviously for United Way it involves the potential for increased revenues, the potential for improved services and the ability for us to act as a region," said Diana Baker, interim president of the Hillsborough United Way.

    Though Pinellas United Way officials didn't want to predict how a vote would go, the concept of merging has been discussed for years, and the agencies have been working on the specifics of this plan for about nine months.

    The United Way is a non-profit, nationwide organization that raises money through payroll deductions and gives it to a variety of social service agencies that provide family counseling, care for abused children, day care, services for elders, drug treatment and many other programs.

    Hillsborough's board voted Wednesday in favor of a "letter of intent" that called for it to move toward a merger to take effect in July 2002.

    But United Way officials on both sides of Tampa Bay were cautious in their comments Wednesday, saying they did not want to second-guess what action the Pinellas board might make when it discusses the matter at today's meeting.

    In today's discussion, the Pinellas board could vote for or against the plan, or table the matter for future study, said Barbara Pacheco, president and CEO of the Pinellas United Way.

    If the Pinellas board approves the plan, United Way officials expect a national search for an executive director of the new, combined agency.

    Such an agency would help raise more money for the social programs the organizations finance, some officials said. Kim Scheeler, who until recently was the group's president in Hillsborough, said businesses with stores or offices on both sides of Tampa Bay essentially had to run two different fundraising campaigns, one for Pinellas, one for Hillsborough. The merger would mean a business could run one, well-focused campaign, and "that translates into more money being raised," he said.

    Where donations would go in a merged agency is a very sensitive issue that officials would analyze carefully, said Scheeler, now president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

    Pacheco said it's likely that at least in the early stages, Pinellas County donations would stay in Pinellas and Hillsborough County donations would stay in Hillsborough, but that, too, is a matter for discussion. Pinellas has a budget of roughly $10-million, and Hillsborough's is roughly $17-million.

    The combined agency also could be one with influence and strong connections to the power structure on both sides of the bay, a rarity, given Pinellas and Hillsborough's history of tussling over airports, baseball teams and other matters.

    "I think the United Way can be that roundtable, if you will," Pacheco said.

    Historically, Pinellas and Hillsborough have conducted the merger discussions, but during his tenure at United Way, Scheeler said he also spoke with Pasco County officials about coordinating programs better. Asked if Pasco could be included in a future merger, it could "possibly happen down the road," he said. Linda Osmundson, executive director of the Center Against Spouse Abuse in Pinellas County, said she was "neutral but concerned" about the prospect of a merger.

    "I do not yet see that it's going to raise us more dollars, and to me that would be the primary reason to combine," she said. If she could be convinced it will raise more, "then I'm all for it."

    - Curtis Krueger, who writes about social issues, can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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