CLEARWATER — After lobbing all their arguments at City Council, tennis players still didn't get what they wanted.
A pack of players showed up at City Hall Thursday night to take issue with Clearwater's recent decision to turn off the electric lights at 24 outdoor tennis courts to save money on power bills.
These after-work tennis players think it's ridiculous that a city of Clearwater's size can't spare $20,000 to light a couple of dozen courts when working people want to use them. They asked that the lights be restored.
"Tennis is the fastest-growing traditional sport," said Judy Foster of the Suncoast Tennis Foundation, who recalled that Clearwater was named one of the 10 "best tennis towns" in America by the U.S. Tennis Association earlier this year. "That looks pretty bad now that we don't have lights to play at night."
However, officials said the budget cuts reflect a new reality of declining property taxes, and the lights will stay off. The council only agreed to light a couple of more courts in northeast Clearwater out of geographic fairness because a few courts downtown and on Clearwater Beach are still lit.
Officials blamed Amendment 1, the property tax cutting referendum that voters approved in 2008.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said the council had told the city manager to order his department heads to cut costs so the city can keep its tax rate the same.
"They're taking little bites from all areas of the city of Clearwater with the understanding that everybody is going to feel a little bit of pain," the mayor said.
At council member George Cretekos' suggestion, they considered installing a swipe-card system for the lights. Tennis players would buy prepaid cards from the recreation department and use those to pay to turn on the lights.
Officials concluded this system would be too expensive, and there's no way it would ever come close to paying for itself.
Why not put in simple coin-operated meters? They'd get vandalized, officials said.
The tennis players also wanted to know why Clearwater's racquetball and basketball courts are still lit, even as the tennis courts have gone dark.
"If we turn off the racquetball courts, the racquetball people will be here," said council member Paul Gibson. "Every field has a constituency."
Parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar said the city gets more bang for its buck by lighting a basketball court, because more people can play on it.
As for the racquetball lights, he said those might get shut off next year when Clearwater will likely face another multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Not every member of the public thought the tennis lights should be turned back on.
"This is the result when you convince residents that the city is responsible for their quality of life. No one's ever satisfied," conservative activist Joe Paige told the council. "Out of a city of 110,000 people, the only people who give a tinker's dam about lighted tennis courts are in this room right now."
The tennis players begged to differ, noting that they had brought a petition signed by 760 Clearwater residents.
In the end, the city agreed to light two tennis courts at Woodgate Park, located at Countryside Boulevard and Enterprise Road.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.