He leaned back on the bench, allowing just bits of a pizza delivery store advertisement to peek through for motorists to see as they sped past the New River Branch Library on State Road 54.
The skies were a clear blue, and the morning coolness was quickly giving way to what would soon be a noontime Florida heat. Yet, hints of sweat formed on his forehead, under a tattered ball cap where the letters “TB” were joined by a stingray — a not-so-happy reminder of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the past.
The man, who would not give his name, had walked from The Columns at Cypress Point, a small apartment community behind the library. He was hoping to catch the bus to the new Walmart in Wesley Chapel to replenish his food pantry and refrigerator.
Except no bus was coming.
“What do you mean?” he said. “It’s Monday. Where is it?”
Monday was Columbus Day, a holiday with federal status, but one that’s not recognized by many employers, including state and even Pasco County officials. Yet, many offices in the county were closed, including Pasco County Public Transportation, while the employees from those departments attended a daylong retreat and appreciation day. It’s something the county does twice a year — on President’s Day in February and on Columbus Day — County Administrator Michele Baker said. It comes during a time when bus ridership is “significantly reduced.”
“We don’t have the opportunity to train our work units as a team,” Baker said. “The only way to give good training and to improve our customer service, and improve the level of service to our customers, is to do a timeout.”
That timeout closed many county offices the same time banks and federal offices also were shuttered. So-called “constitutional offices,” like the tax collector’s office and supervisor of elections office, remained open, however.
The New River library was closed Monday, but budget cutbacks forced all county libraries to be closed Mondays. Yet, employees from New River and others also took part in the retreat, and they will make up for the extra day by closing down all libraries on Friday.
Baker’s administration got the green light to shut down the county twice a year for these training sessions when her predecessor, John Gallagher, was still in office three years ago, she said. The training has taken place ever since, but has not needed additional approvals from the commission.
“It is difficult to choose the right day,” Commissioner Pat Mulieri told The Laker/Lutz News, in an email. “I think that bringing staff together is a great idea. We are growing, and there are many departments that could assist one another and integrate services. It always helps if it is on a personal basis.”
But one of the people who wants to replace Mulieri on the commission agrees that training is good, but only with minimal impact to people who depend on county services. Erika Remsberg, a Democrat who faces Mike Moore in the upcoming Nov. 4 election, said her first thought after learning bus service was cancelled on Monday was wondering how some people were going to get to work.
“This will mean lower-income folks who depend on our transit system to access health care, employment, shopping or otherwise, will not be able to do so on that day,” Remsberg said, in an email. “The extent of those consequences may not be realized or assessed. My hope is this is such a critical training event that it will increase productivity (and) customer service more than it will hurt the folks who will lose a day’s pay, delay their treatment, or prevent them from getting groceries for their families.”
Six miles away from the man in front of the library, a woman sporting a bright orange bag leaned against a bus stop sign near Vandine Road. She had a dollar bill in her hand, as well as a voucher, and looked with concern down State Road 54, waiting for a bus to arrive.
When she was told buses were not running that day, her face turned disgusted, and she walked off down the sidewalk.
“When those drivers are at work, they are out driving a bus,” Baker said. “The only time we could meet with them is after hours and on overtime, and this is a way we didn’t have to do that and save money. We have really not gotten any complaints.”
For anyone who has been inconvenienced, the rewards from Monday’s meetings would make it worth it, she said.
“Our people come out of this with refreshed customer service skills and new technical skills,” Baker said. “The whole idea is to give us an opportunity provide all this necessary training, and to ensure it’s very cost-affordable.”
Did you work on Columbus Day?
It’s been called one of the nation’s most inconsistently celebrated holidays by the Pew Research Center. And while federal and bank employees might have Columbus Day off, state workers in Florida do not, nor do a vast majority of private company employees.
In fact, The Council of State Governments says just 23 states even recognize Columbus Day as a paid holiday. And while banks might be closed, the stock market isn’t, so the gavel still fell on Wall Street on Monday.
Pasco County Schools and Pasco-Hernando State College both remained open on Monday — meaning students, faculty and administrators were on the job.
The holiday first appeared in Colorado in 1906 to celebrate the landing of explorer Christopher Columbus to what would later become American soil in 1492.
– Michael Hinman
Published October 15, 2014
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