LARGO — The city's Parks and Recreation Department has been criticized for the amount of taxpayer money it spends.
During the November election, one candidate, Robert Hunsicker, said unless Largo drastically cuts back on "nonessential" amenities like playhouses, playgrounds, nature centers and community meeting places, emergency calls would slow and sewers could overrun.
But now, a group of residents is pushing back against labeling parks and recreation as "nonessential."
They call themselves the Friends of Largo Recreation and Parks.
They evoke a fear of their own: that without recreation, smiles could shrink, life would become grayer and Largo would become a less attractive place to live or visit.
In a letter to city commissioners this week, former commissioner Gay Gentry, the Friends' president, made the intentions of the group clear.
"We see the need to work together to advocate for best practices that affect the quality of life in the greater Largo area," Gentry wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Gentry said the Friends will be a unifying agent for the varied interests in the parks department — from the city's dance company, to its dive team, softball league and the facilities they each hold dear.
"What we need is an umbrella group. Several of us who make sure everybody is on the same page," Gentry said.
She said the group is about information — making sure the public has accurate news about everything parks related, how to address city officials and how the legislative and budget processes work.
"Coming in the middle of September to tell the city how to do the budget is way, way, way too late. Not everybody knows that," Gentry said. "We need to make sure people know the process, how to go about sharing a piece of information."
Recreation, Parks and Arts director Joan Byrne said she has been in contact with Gentry and the group and said as her department prepares to trim an additional $500,000 from its budget for 2012, she welcomes the increased communication.
"Especially when you're in cutback mode, you have to cut something, typically the public response is, 'Just don't cut what I want,' " Byrne said. "It (communication) helps people see the bigger picture rather than just one slice of the pie."
Gentry said the group currently has 22 members, representing 18 different interests within the parks and recreation community.
Membership dues are $5, and seniors receive a $2 discount.
For more information about the Friends group, visit friendsoflargo recreationandparks.com.
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.