For Ersever Corpuz, a 20-year-old from Tampa, the calculus that goes into a day of fishing at Fort De Soto Park is simple.
"You have to catch more than $5 worth of fish," to make it worth the trip, he said on a recent morning that stood out because for the first time in years, nothing — no blue runner, no yellowtail — was biting. "If I catch enough, then the fee is worth it."
More than a year ago, the Pinellas County Commission set a $5 entrance fee at Fort De Soto Park, a decision prompted by years of budget cuts and staff reductions that left the park with a skeleton staff. Visitors had begun to complain about waist-high grass and overflowing trash cans. The park's defenders said there was no way it could weather more cuts and remain one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
Corpuz was one of the fee's many critics. He still says it's ridiculous to pay for something that was free for so long. He and his friends still grumble after they hand $5 to the toll taker, but their complaints are fainter.
"It's a lot cleaner now," Corpuz said.
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Since January, the fee has brought in nearly $1.2 million, and though much of that is waiting to be spent on infrastructure projects, visitors and employees say Fort De Soto already is a more tidy park.
The new plastic trash cans are larger and more animal-proof than their predecessors; some decades-old equipment on the playgrounds has been replaced; and the parks department found money in its budget to replace the defunct light fixtures on the Gulf Pier. The new fixtures face inward, sending light onto the pier instead of the water below, where it could irritate sea turtles.
"A lot of people misread the entrance fee," as a way to bring in supplemental income, said Jim Wilson, who has been park supervisor since 1988. Last year, county officials were considering cutting another $1 million from the parks department. At the time, according to county officials, Fort De Soto's staff size had fallen from a peak of 80 people to 24.
"The main thing that happened in this first year is there weren't further reductions of staff and amenities, there was actually the addition," Wilson said, noting that he was able to hire two more park rangers this year and four part-time toll takers.
"Now that we're through this first year, the big enhancements are yet to come."
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Next year, Fort De Soto will celebrate its 50th birthday, as will much of its infrastructure. The water lines are old, as are the sewer lines and the bathrooms. Those are among the first targets for repairs paid for by the entrance fee, said Lyle Fowler, the operations manager for the county's parks department.
To handle the lines of cars that can accumulate in front of the park's sole tollbooth, Fowler is planning to widen the roadway and add a second lane in January. On peak days, this will allow for two fee collectors to work simultaneously. He has floated the idea of devoting the second lane to people who buy annual passes.
Eventually, he would like to automate fee collection, he said.
But as many predicted when debate over park fees began, there has been a noticeable dropoff in attendance at both Fort De Soto and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, which also set a $5 fee.
Attendance figures at Fort De Soto fell to 2.4 million in 2012, down from 2.8 million in 2011, a decline of nearly 15 percent. Perhaps because of the lower attendance, the fees collected at Fort De Soto are short of the $2 million the county projected.
At Fred Howard, attendance fell to 1.28 million in 2012 from 1.63 million the year before. The roughly $350,000 the park has collected in fees has allowed the county to hire two full-time rangers and two maintenance workers.
Concerned about shutting out low-income visitors, the parks department allows people on public assistance to buy annual passes for $37.50 a year, half of the regular cost of $75. But since that option became available, only 54 people have purchased them.
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When the fee first went into place, Casey Truong, 26, of Pinellas Park figured he would be one of the many dissuaded from going to Fort De Soto, his usual fishing grounds, as often. But over time, the $5 fee began to feel like a minor inconvenience.
"At first I thought it was going to be a big hassle," he said recently, as his fiancee and her son fished behind him. "But I've seen the improvements."
Down the pier, Betty and Don Nolan wrapped thread seal tape around the end of a pipe under the watchful eye of Keith Hollon, the park's craftsworker. Among the park's many volunteers, they were restoring one of the fish-cleaning tables washed away by Tropical Storm Debby. Without functioning tables, fishermen had begun to clean their catches over the park benches.
There used to be a small army of painters and carpenters in the park, Hollon said. Now much of the work falls to him and his volunteers.
"Thankfully, I'm a workaholic," he said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.