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Sarasota’s All-America City Quest

This column appeared in the Pelican Press newspaper, June 29, 2006.

Sarasota County was recently designated an “All-America County.”

County Commission Chairman David Mills, quoted on the County’s website, predicted this recognition would have “long-lasting effect on the Sarasota community.”

And County Administrator Jim Ley, quoted in a June 8 Sarasota Herald-Tribune article by Doug Sword, described the community pride that would result from this award as a “priceless commodity.”

But there is a price tag – estimated at about $27,000 in public funds according to Sword’s reporting.

For that $27k we get to put signage and decals around public buildings and businesses and proclaim ourselves as “All-America” for years to come. That is pretty long-lasting, I’ll admit, though I’m not sure its “effect” is all that profound.

Many would argue that $27,000 was PR-money well spent if it fosters civic pride, or that 27 grand is chump change in the overall county budget, so where’s the harm?

It is certainly a well-deserved accolade for the county employees and volunteers who bust their butts every day trying to make Sarasota a better place for all.

But priceless? Let’s take a look.

There are county residents – men, women, and children — who are drowning in poverty, illiteracy, and hunger. What could $27,000 in tax dollars have bought for them?

According to the All Faiths Food Bank website, a $5,000 donation results in 25,000 meals. I can do a little math; that translates to 135,000 all-American meals. A hot meal must seem pretty priceless when you’re hungry, even if its effects are short-term.

Want something a little longer lasting?

The Literacy Council of Sarasota estimates that 20 percent of area adults are “functionally illiterate.” That means one out of every five adults can’t fill out a job application or read a newspaper. Even if they wanted to feel that priceless civic pride Jim Ley spoke of, how are they going to find out about it if they can’t read?

A phone call to the Literacy Council yielded the following insight: It would cost them about $1,000 (excluding volunteer time) to take an adult from functional illiteracy to functional literacy.

The staffer I spoke with ball-parked this figure based on the Council’s annual operating budget, the cost of books for literacy students, and the number of people they serve. She also told me that children of illiterate adults are twice as likely to be illiterate once they reach adulthood themselves.

So, in exchange for the A-A status, we could have raised 27 county adults out of their illiteracy and given them and their children a fighting chance at literacy and all the benefits that go along with that.
By educating 27 adults you would be stopping the dysfunction, isolation and desolation of family illiteracy for generations to come.
You would be giving people the means to find jobs, lift themselves from poverty, empower them to vote, and ultimately lessen their burden on County services over not just one year, but over decades.

That sounds pretty priceless and long-lasting to me.

I have friends and colleagues in the County. I know they and the many volunteers they work with are hardworking folks who do a lot of good for a lot of people. And I understand the value of promoting that.

But spending taxpayers’ dollars to do it? It just doesn’t sit right.

I don’t believe real pride – the kind that fosters a community and effects change, true change, for all — is achieved by some ephemeral designation, no matter how laudatory.

I think real pride in a community is cultivated by knowing that someone’s got your back. Loyalty is a powerful motivator and it isn’t cultivated by vanity awards. It’s cultivated by making hard decision on where dollars go, and by standing up and by and for the ones you call neighbors.

What if the County had issued a statement saying, “Yeah, we came this close to spending $27,000 on an All-America designation, but instead we decided to put your money where our mouth is”?

I know it’s not as glamorous as the fancy, red, white and blue designation, but I’ve got to believe it would have inspired just as much, if not more, good publicity, lasting, measurable results, and sincere, all-American pride among county taxpayers. And that sounds pretty priceless to me.

Posted on June 29th, 2006Comments RSS Feed

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