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Amid Hillsborough County budget woes, parents plead for after-school programs

TAMPA — Robert Herman describes himself as a blue-collar worker with four children who has been unemployed two years.

People like him live in places where you don't let your children outside unsupervised.

"The neighborhoods we live in, they're like prisons," said Herman, who lives in unincorporated eastern Hillsborough County.

One salvation has been the county's subsidized after-school program, which children can attend for little or no money. Now the county is proposing to consolidate the program from more than 40 parks to 12, and to turn them over to other groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs or YMCA to run.

Herman urged commissioners not to do that.

"You keep cutting from the people who are hurting the most — the little people," Herman said. "You're hurting us even more."

Herman was one of several speakers at the first public hearing since County Administrator Mike Merrill released his $3 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, and most spoke in support of the after-school program. Commissioners will discuss the county budget through the summer before approving a final spending plan in September.

Commissioners expressed sympathy. They said they're willing to listen to suggestions. But after four years of falling tax revenue, they said they no longer have a choice.

"We'd like to do the Cadillac program," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "We can't afford it."

Commissioner Victor Crist, however, argued that if the county continues to cut programs that affect its quality of life, it will never attract companies and investment needed to turn the economy around.

"This commissioner, for one, is willing to look at ideas," he said.

Similar exchanges have been taking place for months around the county as parks officials hold community meetings to explain their plans. They've actually been taking places for years as the county has gradually modified its structured after-school programs.

Other regional governments, including Tampa's, are grappling with similar changes.

The county initially proposed eliminating its after-school programs more than three years ago, or farming them out to private operators. Parents toting their children packed the commission chambers. Charge us first, they said, and see how that works.

So commissioners did, on a sliding scale topping out at $45 a week and reduced for low-income families.

Enrollment dropped from a high of 6,000 participants for a program that cost $8 million to run, to 1,800 today with roughly the same operating costs.

The county averages about $18 weekly per child in the fees it collects for a program that costs more than $70 a child each week.

Commissioner Ken Hagan participated in the programs as a child, helped run one as a young man and now has a son in one. He expressed sympathy to the parents. But he said those numbers make it unsustainable.

"These are very difficult and challenging times," he said. "Don't think there's a commissioner on this board who doesn't realize the value of this program."

As plans stand now, Merrill is recommending that after-school programs at 42 parks get consolidated at 12. Three exist today, while six existing recreation centers would need to be expanded and three others built.

Commissioners heard from a trio of women from Sun City Center who volunteer at the after-school program at Bethune Park in Wimauma. They noted that the nearest regional park will be 10 miles away.

"There are no supervised areas for these kids to go," said Sharon Gerlach, one of the volunteers.

Amid Hillsborough County budget woes, parents plead for after-school programs 06/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 7:54am]

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