Wednesday, August 15, 2018
News Roundup

Bowen: Lack of dollars puts at risk Pasco's vibrancy

Pasco County, which brands itself as "open spaces, vibrant places," is in danger of losing some of that vibrancy.

The open spaces? Those should still be coming as the county embarks on a 10-year master plan to expand its park system. The plan is intended to make up for past shortcomings and to accommodate as many as 200,000 new residents expected to flood the county by 2025.

But open space might be all they get. New parks could be pieces of land, a parking lot and a shelter.

What will be missing are recreation centers for indoor sports, outdoor playgrounds, splash pads and about three-quarters of the ballfields and tennis and basketball courts a consultant said the county needs.

In other words, we'll be buying land for a park where kids can't race down a slide, shoot hoops, shag fly balls on a baseball diamond, or bounce around amid the cooling spray of water jets.

How vibrant is that?

It is the reality of what lies ahead if commissioners, or voters, fail to approve new revenue for the Parks and Recreation Department. A commission majority previously balked at increasing the $891 impact fee per single-family home, and the board has been unable to agree on how to go about shaping a tax question for a 2018 ballot referendum. Commissioners did, however, set aside $90,000 in the new county budget to hire a consultant to try to figure that out.

But if no additional dollars materialize, the county will be left with a $61 million deficit in its 10-year park plan. Tampa-based consultant AECOM has said the county needs $148 million worth of parks over the next decade, including $14 million to maintain the existing inventory and $14.4 million to finish park facilities called for in a 2001 master plan that were never completed — mostly a planned recreation center at Wesley Chapel District Park that failed to materialize.

The new stuff should include $20 million for recreation/community centers, roughly $1.5 million worth of boat launches, $88.7 million for new park land and facilities and $5.7 million worth of amenities at existing parks.

For the time being, what the county can afford is whatever will be covered by anticipated impact fee revenue over the next 10 years, projected at $72 million. That money cannot be used to maintain existing parks, so the actual deficit is more like $75 million.

So last week, the Development Review Committee — top county administrators plus representatives of the Pasco Economic Development Council and the Pasco School District — agreed to modify the county's impact fee ordinance to establish spending priorities.

Passive is in. Team sports, playground high jinks and splashing around in your shorts or swimsuit is down and mostly out. The $72 million will allow the county to buy land and increase water access. It will not cover the accoutrements for kids and will finance only about a quarter of the outdoor fields and courts.

"I see how we got in this corner, but it's an ugly corner," said County Administrator Michele Baker.

The consultants, incidentally, tallied a need for 17 baseball/softball diamonds, eight soccer fields, four football fields, five tennis courts and three basketball courts amid 594 acres across the county. And that was just to meet current shortfalls that include no recreation centers or swimming pools east of Land O'Lakes, and no new ballfields built west of U.S. 41 in 25 years.

But, by my math, the county can afford four baseball/softball fields, two soccer fields, one football field, one tennis court and no basketball courts.

It means new parks planned at Bexley, Connerton, Pasadena Hills and Meadow Pointe could be pretty barren except for barbecue grills and picnic shelters.

After watching the pushback last week from some Gulf Harbors residents on a planned $100 five-year assessment to preserve land for a passive park in their neighborhood, a voter-approved tax, at this point, would seem to be a difficult sell.

The idea that school district property can completely make up for a shortfall of park equipment also seems impractical.

Then again, keeping a park impact fee, adopted 15 years ago, at a rate of $891 per newly constructed home is just as shortsighted. Unless, of course, you believe the owners of a new $400,000 home will consider a 9-mile drive to the nearest kids playground a vibrant way of life.

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