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A Times Editorial

Don't back down from Tommytown plan

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001

Pasco County commissioners should not renege on a promise to some of its poorest residents.

The sticker shock of a planned multimillion-dollar improvement to Tommytown has some commissioners questioning the county's priorities in disbursing federal money. The commissioners should reconsider their own priorities, instead.

It is easy to play Santa Claus and throw money toward numerous non-profit agencies -- headed by boards of directors filled with influential civic leaders. It takes leadership to forgo political capital and remain committed to improving the quality of life in a sliver of the county rarely seen by most of the electorate.

At issue is the annual $3-million federal Community Development Block Grant administered by the county and intended to benefit low- and moderate-income residents. Tuesday, the county's Community Development Division recommended allocating $1-million to begin improvements in Tommytown, plus $700,000 for a day care center in the largely Hispanic community. All told, the county received requests to fund nearly $8-million worth of projects this year.

Commissioners balked at the recommendation. Ted Schrader said some of the money should go to Sunrise of Pasco County. Commissioner Peter Altman thought the planned Redlands Migrant Christian Day Care Center was too expensive and other areas like Shady Hills are just as downtrodden as Tommytown. And Commissioner Steve Simon said the entire price tag, up to $8-million over several years, is too much for one area and spread over too many years.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand was remiss when she failed to remind the new commissioners of the previous commitment. Acquiescing to Schrader's suggestion with a shrug and an "it's your district" attitude is unacceptable from a countywide commission.

Only Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri, who was absent Tuesday, were on the board in August 1998 when the commission approved the five-year plan to pave seven miles of roads, add sidewalks, install water and sewer lines and stormwater drainage, and put up street lights in the 78-block area north of the Dade City limits known as Tommytown.

"To further improve the safety and livability of Tommytown, the Community Development Division will support crime-prevention programs, reduce the number of abandoned nuisance properties and encourage site-based support services such as education, job training and youth programs," the county reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The project follows a similarly successful improvement to the nearby Carver Heights area that even commissioners acknowledge was a worthwhile effort.

So is this one. When starting, the county found 78 percent of the 1,309 people living in Tommytown are low and moderate income and 44 percent of the houses are substandard. Pot-hole filled dirt paths serve as residential streets that are lined with shotgun shacks. Crime is problematic. So is substance abuse.

Since targeting the area, the county used federal and state money to demolish 11 vacant and dilapidated homes and provide financing for 33 new single-family homes that are finished or under construction. Repairs were done to six other houses and 15 applications for new or rehabilitated houses are pending.

All the activity comes after community residents, builders, bankers and others had been led to believe the area was worth the investment because of the promise of the pending infrastructure improvements.

It was a reasonable expectation. Public meetings with residents began in March 1999, a communitywide cleanup followed eight months later, and the commission approved an $870,000 contract in February 2000 for the surveys, design and permits for the project. That would have been a more logical time for voice cost concerns.

The long-term commitment is in doubt after the commission agreed to slice the Tommytown appropriation by 25 percent to allow the Sunrise domestic violence agency to buy the building it is now leasing. It also told its staff to rework future numbers because the financing was exclusionary of other agency's needs.

Commissioners still must hold public hearings on its funding choices before sending the data to HUD in mid August. They can expect to hear from Farmers Self-Help and other advocates for Tommytown, as well as from other agencies that did not get the same last-minute consideration as Sunrise.

If the county wants to help more groups by increasing its own social services funding, so be it. It is appropriate considering that allocation of $234,000 hasn't grown in 13 years even though demand has. But backing away from the commitment to Tommytown by slicing the same federal pie into smaller pieces is a disservice to the community.

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