RUSKIN — It's the way her kayak paddle slices through the calm water at E.G. Simmons Park.
The way there are no buildings in sight, only water and sky.
"And it's free," said park lover Brooke Barbour.
But not for long. Facing a budget gap of $1.6 million, Hillsborough County parks officials thought they were going to have to cut staff and slash days at its 10 regional parks next year.
To cut $140 million from a budget deflated by falling property taxes, County Administrator Pat Bean also proposed closing the parks four days a week in 2011. But county leaders found an option amid public outcry: fees. People like Barbour, 19, and her boyfriend, Brian Dorrado, 23, will soon have to pay for what was once free.
"It's going to be a different way of doing business and a new way of thinking for us," said parks spokesman John Brill. "The parks will no longer be fully subsidized for people."
The proposed fees include a tentative $2-per-car entry fee, a $5 boat ramp fee and a doubling of campsite fees to $24. Annual passes would be made available for park entry at $50 a person or $100 per family.
An estimated 21 vacant staff positions will also be eliminated to keep costs down, Brill said. He added that the last time the parks department raised fees to use campsites and rent shelters was in 2002.
Officials expect to recoup the $1.6 million budget deficit from the new fees and position cuts. They could even have some left over, Brill said. Commissioners still have to vote on the proposal in September, when the final budget is expected to be hammered out in full detail.
"We don't know for sure how this is going to pan out," Brill said. "We've never done this. We've got to think like a business, and we've got to make enough money to keep things open and running as normal."
Land O'Lakes resident Gregg Irving is one of several supporters who have shown up at commission budget hearings advocating fees. The Wilderness Trails Association president regularly drives south into Hillsborough County to ride the extensive set of off-road bike trails at Wilderness Park. The park is made up of a network of sites including Flatwoods, Dead River and others.
"At the Alafia River State Park, you pay (to get in)," Irving said. "Why wouldn't Wilderness Park be worth a dollar or two?"
His group, along with other avid users, have found that many think it is.
"I don't think that the interest in parks was gauged properly," Irving said. "I'm at the park somewhere between three to five days a week. Some people who use it every day, we support a pay-per-use plan."
Park ranger Daryl Fravel thinks that fees are the missing link. The cost of keeping parks open would be spread among everyone who uses them, including those who live out of the county, he said.
From his post at Edward Medard Park in Plant City, Fravel regularly sees people from Polk, Pasco and even from out of state flock to the park during the cooler winter and spring months.
For $12 a night, they have access to water, electricity and dumping stations.
"There are a lot of things that aren't being done that could be," Fravel said. "Parks can be generating revenue."
Barbour and her boyfriend said they might be inclined to find free places to fish and boat if fees are charged. But they said they understand the need.
"If we had to pay a few dollars, we'd still come," Barbour said. "It's better than not being able to use it. We're nature lovers."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.