Amid cutbacks at Tampa parks, fees rise and management ranks grow

Clarinet player Joe Guggino, left, is helped by Carmel vanHoek during the Tampa Community Band’s practice at Kate Jackson Recreation Center on Wednesday. The band practiced there for free for seven years. Now the city wants to charge it.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Clarinet player Joe Guggino, left, is helped by Carmel vanHoek during the Tampa Community Band’s practice at Kate Jackson Recreation Center on Wednesday. The band practiced there for free for seven years. Now the city wants to charge it.

TAMPA — For seven years, the Tampa Community Band practiced once a week at Kate Jackson Park in South Tampa.

But in October, after the parks department increased fees, the group was slapped with charges totaling thousands of dollars.

"Suddenly, we're supposed to cough up all kinds of dollars we don't have and didn't have to pay before," said Ed Solomon, a Tampa resident and trombone player who manages the 45-member band that plays Broadway tunes, marches and pops numbers without pay during six or so performances every year, many of them in the city.

Solomon took his concerns to the Tampa City Council earlier this month. Parks director Karen Palus is scheduled to address the board on Thursday to answer questions about the new fees.

The department has faced numerous complaints about the fees, as well as a reorganization last year that added 13 to the supervisory and managerial ranks while lower-level jobs were eliminated. Though the department's overall salary costs now are down $1 million from 2009's level, the payroll for people in supervisory and management positions is up by $700,000.

Since 2007, when property tax revenue began plummeting, the department has cut its budget by $7.3 million and eliminated 277 jobs — many of them from the ranks of people teaching classes.

"My question is: If you're saying we don't have money, why are you creating all these higher-paying positions?" said Martha Stevens, president of the union that represents about 2,000 city employees. "Who's going to do the work?"

To fill the gap, the city wants to hire more independent contractors to teach things like tennis and art.

"We don't have to be the ones to do it all. We just have to make sure it gets done," Palus said. "There's a lot of talented folks out there, and we're bringing those folks to our community."

In preparation for beefing up its class schedule, the city is formalizing its relationships with outside recreation leaders. A one-page contract has grown to 10 pages, and instructors now receive a 27-page manual.

The department wants to track student registrations, create a calendar of classes and pay instructors a percentage of the class fees. The parks department also is upping insurance requirements for instructors, citing IRS regulations and risk management requirements.

That has irked longtime contractors, who in the past collected fees directly from students and then paid 20 to 30 percent of their revenue to the city.

"We had to make a change there as far as accountability," said Santiago Corrada, administrator for neighborhood services, which includes the parks department. "Our position is, if you have something to offer and you can abide by the contract, you can teach the classes. Nobody has the inalienable right to use public property for private gain."

Glen Shull has taught tennis at the Himes Avenue Sports Complex for more than three years, allowing students to drop in on classes and pay a fee as they participate, rather than sign up for weeks-long sessions.

"My students could just come by and say, 'Hey, Glen, I saw you out here playing. I want to join the clinic,' " he said.

Last year, he said, he paid the city $4,800.

"All they had to do was cash the check," he said. "The city is getting free money and a nice service they're able to offer to their citizens with no administrative costs. Why muck it up?"

At least six instructors have quit because of the changes, he said.

Shull acknowledges that under the old system, the city had no guarantee it was getting its share of his revenue.

"It's a trust thing," he said, adding that many of the instructors have other jobs and teach tae kwon do, pottery or exercise classes just for fun. "We're not going to cheat the city. If you think I'm cheating, fire me."

Complaints regarding fees have come largely from people who don't live in the city and now must pay $115 a year to use Tampa recreation facilities. City residents pay $15. In the past, the charge was only $12 for anyone who used amenities such as computer labs or fitness centers. Simply using a room, as the Tampa Community Band does, was free.

Fee increases for after-school programs, which jumped from $12 a year to $25 a week, have caused a drop in enrollment in some locations, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods.

The city offers scholarships and reduced rates to families that meet federal poverty level guidelines. But Palus believes many families haven't taken advantage of those opportunities, either because they aren't aware of them or because they couldn't get to the main park office to fill out the paperwork.

So the city changed its policy, allowing parents to apply for assistance at locations closer to their homes.

As far as the bottom line goes, the department's fee increases have paid off. Collections have totaled $761,474 since they went into effect Oct. 1. That's $283,427 more than revenue for the same period last year.

Solomon, though, calls the fees "out of balance and unreasonable," while emphasizing the parks staff has been very friendly even as it refuses to budge on payments for the Tampa Community Band's use of the Kate Jackson facility.

Solomon was offered options, including a $500 annual rental fee and four concerts for the parks department instead of paying a $3,680 annual rental fee. Another option: Make the 20 or so band members who live outside the city pay the $115 for a recreation card.

Solomon said that in its 22 years the band has performed at least 93 concerts for the city, which he values at $150,000.

"Anything they've given us, we've given more," he said. "One of our questions is: What is our city for if not to give recreation opportunities at no charge?"

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com and (813) 226-3401.

Amid cutbacks at Tampa parks, fees rise and management ranks grow 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 11:01pm]

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