For once, town talks solutions
By JAMIE MALERNEE
© St. Petersburg Times,
HILL 'N DALE -- The laundry list of complaints aired at the Hill 'n Dale town meeting last week was nothing new, many participants said.
Drugs plague the neighborhood. Drivers speed along the streets. Tenants neglect their lawns. Children have nowhere to play.
What distinguished this gathering of local government leaders and members of the community from past meetings, many of the 50 audience members said, was the topic of conversation after residents enumerated their grievances:
"When people see positive things going on in a community, it makes people more open to suggestions and getting involved," said County Commissioner Nancy Robinson. "There are some problems here, but if the community comes together, . . . you can empower yourselves."
Among the proposed solutions were more detailed plans for a 10-acre park, establishing a homeowners association, a beefed up vice narcotics unit, anti-drug programs in the schools, improvements to water and sewer systems, and better communication between residents and local government agencies.
"You need to be persistent, and you need to have people who will listen to you," said County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley. "That's why we're here today, to let you know we're behind you."
One of the main topics at the meeting Thursday evening was the park proposed near Shaw Road and Eastside Elementary School. Although some residents said they had been begging for such a park for decades, others grumbled it would be overrun with drug dealers and teenage hoodlums.
Pat Fagan, director of parks and facilities for the county, made a personal pledge that would not happen. He received a round of applause when he said he would like to have a security officer at the site full time.
"It's a beautiful site, and once you see the development, you're going to see a lot less (crime and vandalism)," Fagan said. "I take pride in my park system, and we'll keep it clean."
James Mead, the head of the Hill 'n Dale Crime Watch Association, stood up and gave the park his full support. Although originally wary of the proposed site, he said county officials had since assured him that adequate access to the park would be provided so sheriff's deputies and crime-watch members could patrol the area.
"These kids are our future, and we need to give them something to do," he said.
More applause came after Sheriff Richard Nugent spoke and announced his request for two new narcotics officers in next year's budget.
"We've been concerned about what's going on in Hill 'n Dale for some years now, and we're in a position now to change direction somewhat," he said. "We think we need a more grass-roots, street-level narcotics unit."
Other government officials announced forthcoming changes.
Frank McDowell, county code enforcement director, said his department is trying to make it easier for people to file complaints about barking dogs. The county now requires the signatures of three neighbors to do anything substantial. McDowell wants to cut that down to one neighbor, he said.
Kay Adams, county utilities department director, informed the audience that the county was in the process of signing a contract that would run another sewer and water line to Hill 'n Dale. The lines would serve as backups during emergencies.
Near the end of the meeting, resident Sharon Vance addressed some concerns she felt were beyond the scope of government, such as lawns that were unkept but not necessarily code violations, disruptive neighbors and the lack of support for the local crime-watch group. She proposed starting a homeowners organization that could attack these issues.
"It would be for the benefit of everybody -- for property values and for the children's sake -- to actually do something positive," Vance said.
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