TAMPA — Mark Thornton remembers when school buses would take 1,500 kids from as far north as Keystone, and as far south as Keysville, to swimming lessons in Tampa.
Then money got tight and neither Hillsborough County nor the city of Tampa could afford the buses. "We don't know how many lives were saved," said Thornton, the county parks director. "It was a hard program to cut."
As summer begins, the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department is continuing to make hard choices that reflect a tight economy and, administrators say, new conventions for public parks.
A public long accustomed to magnanimous programming at rock-bottom prices is facing shorter hours at recreation centers. Lesser-used pools are closing at lunchtime. As the department absorbs its share of a $52 million city deficit, everything is on the table, including possible increases in program fees.
But, as the ranks of recreational leaders and instructors shrink, the department is filling dozens of new supervisory positions. Administrators say the hiring is part of a reorganization that will bring efficiency and accountability to an antiquated system.
Critics don't buy that logic.
"It's typical government," says Jimmy Pruneda, an East Tampa welder who worries about higher fees for recreational volleyball. "Too many chiefs and not enough Indians."
Wanda Howard, 62, remembers spending afternoons at a center in southwest Tampa. There were Friday night movies and talent shows. "It was someplace where we could go and feel safe," said Howard, whose grandsons now use the centers. "When our parents worked, that's where we went."
Longtime staffers describe a culture in which counselors waited patiently for parents after hours. "We were so accommodating," said spokeswoman Linda Carlo. "We gave so much to everybody that we didn't really have that it was tough for the staff to keep up with everything."
But the department was also fragmented. Parks and recreation, in fact, were two separate bureaucracies.
There was too much "windshield time" and little accountability, said Karen Palus, hired as director in 2004. If, for example, you had an issue at north Tampa's Copeland Park, you might call any of 11 bureaucrats, depending on whether it concerned the grounds, sports, a children's program or personnel.
With staff input, Palus set about to bring management closer to the 178 centers.
Then money became an issue.
"It would have been nice and easy, had we said, 'Here's the game plan, let's go forward,' and we had no other issues hit us at this time," Palus said.
Instead, officials needed to rein in costs. They eliminated or froze dozens of jobs from 2007 to 2009, typically in the hands-on recreation leader categories. Payroll dropped by $5 million. They needed fewer lifeguards and swim teachers after the busing ended. That cut 100 summer jobs.
They looked for programs that could be eased out with the least effect on the public. A preschool was targeted, but when the public objected, the department offered it at a higher fee at a center in South Tampa.
A tennis program at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus, slated to close for construction, ended ahead of schedule. Centers started closing on weekends.
Some programs were considered pure luxury. "We had folks that were ballroom dance instructors," Palus said. "You go to most communities, and those are not full-time staff. They are contracted specialists."
The department is now addressing areas of duplication. For example: Two divisions offer adult sports. "Why do we need to be running two programs?" Palus said. "Gang, we're all doing the same thing."
But a move to consolidate the two has detractors, as fees could go up for some of the teams.
"I'm going to lose a lot of my players," said David Beltran, a 46-year-old barber who coaches softball and volleyball. Diagnosed with depression, he said he relies on the programs for quality of life. He worries that athletes who are struggling financially will hesitate to pay more for sports.
"Almost all my players are married and have kids," he said. "I have a mother on my volleyball team with two daughters. I have one player who has four kids."
Palus and Carlo know price is a sensitive issue and said no final decision has been made on fees.
They also know the reorganization, while not causing them to exceed their budget, has cost them the loyalty of employees who did not receive promotions.
James Quillen II, a 51-year-old recreation leader, filed a grievance with the city employees union after he was denied one of the new positions. "I feel I was better qualified and had more seniority than some people promoted," he wrote.
Of the reorganization, he said, "They seem to be really fat at the top, and they're not following their own rules."
The numbers of hires — 21 site supervisors and 25 site and center coordinators, at salaries that range from $35,000 to $65,000 — might look daunting at a time of cuts in the rank and file.
One reason they are needed, Palus said, is to make it easier for centers to enter into partnerships with other organizations in the neighborhoods.
"The days of rec leaders, aquatics leaders and such within a parks and recreation department being the only instructors, the only folks that provide those services, have been over in most communities for years," she said.
She said she is promoting from within the department as much as possible and plans to fill many site coordinator jobs with experienced recreation leaders.
$200 per team?
In the centers, meanwhile, customers such as Wanda Howard dread the slightest price hike.
So do athletes such as Pruneda.
Under one scenario, his Forest Hills volleyball team would be charged more than $200 per season — double the current rate. That's on top of $16 he pays to use the building — which, he points out, he already paid for with his taxes.
"People aren't going to pay $200 or $300," he said. "It's not gonna happen. You can't get people to pay $16."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or email@example.com.