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Admission fees to Fort De Soto and Fred Howard Park off the table — for now

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County has shelved plans to enact admission fees at nationally known Fort De Soto Park and the Fred Howard Park beach.

The County Commission won't adopt the fees as part of its 2010 budget this summer. The decision was due partly, county officials say, to the public backlash over the proposal, which called for an up to $8 per car charge at Fort De Soto in south Pinellas and a $5 fee at Fred Howard's causeway to park along its beach in Tarpon Springs.

Saying the county isn't heartless to people's strapped pocketbooks, County Administrator Bob LaSala said the county had received "a lot of feedback."

But it could be a temporary victory for opponents.

LaSala told the St. Petersburg Times that he will bring the fees before the commission again, possibly as early as this fall.

"I would think we need to be discussing this by the end of the year," he said.

The proposed 2010 budget had included the new fees, including a $110 annual pass. However, it did not include any potential revenue from those fees because of questions over tollbooths and how quickly they could be set up. The park fees will be removed before the commission approves a final budget in September, LaSala said.

"We needed to gauge the board's reaction to (the fees) — not yes or don't do it," LaSala said. "We wanted to start the conversation."

LaSala said the county always planned to offer options and costs to collect fees to the County Commission in November or December. The county has to decide whether to build tollbooths or try to use the state's existing toll sites near Fort De Soto, for example.

"It's on the same course it was," LaSala said.

The idea of park fees triggered opposition among neighbors such as Tarpon Springs resident Mo Brunelle, who recently said an admission fee was unacceptable for people who live in his nearby neighborhood and visit the park daily.

While Fort De Soto is a tourist magnet, many consider Fred Howard more of a community park. The proposal would have charged for parking near the beach, but most of the park would have remained free.

Fred Howard Park supervisor Pam Traas said most people she encountered didn't understand the fee wouldn't affect bikers, and favored a pass over paying a daily charge.

"A whole segment of the population is very concerned and upset about this. We need to have lots of public comment, lots of public input," said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

The county plans to look more closely at the revenue the fees could generate and the costs of collection. LaSala described the estimates in the budget proposal as "gross, gross" figures based on rough accounting.

County estimates showed the fees, first proposed in March, could generate $3 million annually at a time when the county faces deep spending cuts. The parks department alone faces a $3.6 million cut, which will cost 52 jobs.

Parks advocates had hoped to use the money to stave off deeper cuts, although the revenue would not have been dedicated solely to parks.

Even some fee proponents weren't happy with them as proposed. For instance, they wanted an annual pass to give holders access to all parks.

Other questions and resistance mounted before the budget — which does include firm plans for new and higher fees for animal licenses and other services — was released July 14.

Adding to uncertainty, Commissioners Calvin Harris and Karen Seel suggested higher fees for nonresidents when a rewritten proposal emerges.

And Commissioner Ken Welch said the fees need to be reviewed and discussed in October or November, given the effects of $78 million in spending cuts in the proposed budget.

That sets the stage for another spirited discussion.

"There probably isn't anything else that immediately comes to my mind that has the same emotional significance … than this," LaSala said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Admission fees to Fort De Soto and Fred Howard Park off the table — for now 07/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:02pm]

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