BROOKSVILLE — Gripping petitions signed by 1,763 people in Hernando and surrounding counties, Theresa Cunningham urged the County Commission this week to give the community six months to show they could find the money to keep Stewy's Skate Park open.
The young members of the community, "left us this legacy,'' she said. "We want to be able to leave it for the next generation.''
Cunningham and her allies are part of a growing wave of citizens who, faced with losing community assets because of budget cuts or seeing their taxes raised to keep them, are proposing a Plan C.
Let us help, they are imploring.
So far, the commissioners —fatigued by years of hacking budgets and services — are listening.
In recent weeks, community groups have stepped up to help keep afloat a host of local institutions ranging from the Little Rock Cannery and Hill n' Dale Park to the ballfields at Little Red Schoolhouse and Ernie Wever Youth Park.
During a lengthy budget workshop Tuesday, county commissioners learned details of several of these initiatives.
Cunningham is one of several people who have approached the county with ideas of how to keep Stewy's in business. A local company, commissioners were told, has offered to take care of mowing the grass at the Pinehurst Drive park, a $1,500 savings to the county.
She explained that the group that has formed is already planning additional fundraisers to help defray the $541 per month for utilities and $75 per month for garbage collection.
"The kids are willing to donate their time to maintain that park,'' Cunningham said. "Kids use this park. Kids love this park.''
Others have also inquired about taking over the skate park operations including a group out of Pinellas County that runs similar facilities there, Land Services director Ron Pianta told the commission.
Another popular park on the cut list is Ernie Wever Youth Park, which boasts the third highest usage rate among the county's parks. The county has proposed closing the athletic fields at the park because of high maintenance costs.
But the community has been in an uproar about losing such an important ball field in east Hernando County.
Pianta told commissioners that he has been in discussions with the leaders of the Hernando Youth League.
While they did not seem interested in taking over the park entirely, they did want to help, he said.
Pianta told commissioners that to keep Ernie Wever open, the county needed $66,776 in hard costs and another $49,828 to hire two part-time workers.
He also noted that, because Hernando has a long-term lease on the property from the state, the county attorney has advised that the state would have to approve the county stopping maintenance of the park. The state, he said, might take it over at that time.
The county has also proposed closing other parks in Hill n' Dale, Istachatta, Nobleton Wayside and Lake Townsen. Pianta said that a local church is interested in taking over the Hill n' Dale Park.
To keep all the parks open would cost nearly $200,000, Pianta noted. That would include having three part-time workers replace the four full-time workers who have been maintaining the parks.
The county also has negotiated deals with the Fair Association to take over the Lonnie Coburn Park; with the Spring Hill Civic Association to take over maintenance of the Little Red Schoolhouse ball fields and Hunter Lake boat ramp; and the Ridge Manor Civic Association to help maintain Miller Memorial Gardens.
County officials have also learned that the board of the Hernando Historic Museum Association Inc. has voted to seek a lease with the county to run the Little Rock Cannery, which was also set for closure.
They plan to open it to canning seasonally but also use it as a museum and for offering the community a variety of classes. A formal proposal on the lease is expected to go to the County Commission this month.
In addition, Pianta has been talking to school district officials about identifying some facilities for joint use by the county and the schools but there are many issues to work out there, including differing fee schedules, liability and security questions, he said.
While the county needs to have those conversations, Pianta noted, "this will have little impact on the budget.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.