BROOKSVILLE — Not even two weeks into the new fiscal year, the financial reality of increased fees for county park users has come back to smack county commissioners, prompting them to reconsider.
On Tuesday, they halted the implementation of the fees on athletic field use by the youth leagues until they can sort out their options.
While only a handful of protesters approached the commission this summer as it deliberated whether to raise fees or close parks, since the Oct. 1 increase took effect, commissioners have been flooded with protests.
Several youth sports league officials begged for relief Tuesday, insisting that any child who wants to play should be able to do so and that sports spark leadership, teach fair play and promote good sportsmanship.
Without sports available to everyone, they said, idle children will become troublemakers and lose out on important family activity time. They spoke of families with several children facing bills of hundreds of dollars to pay for their children to play and other families unable to pay the fee, disappointing their youngsters.
When the commission agreed to the fees, "We didn't realize that there would be a lot of unintended consequences with the youth leagues,'' said Commissioner Rose Rocco. "The cost is getting to be prohibitive.''
The commission also raised other fees to pay for parks and recreation but those, including parking fees at boat ramps, have not generated as much protest. Rocco said that the county might consider offering an annual fee for use of the dog park and county staffers agreed that was a good idea.
The county also continues to talk to league officials about having them help out with park maintenance for a break in the hourly fees charged for the use of athletic fields, said Ron Pianta, county planning director.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he was unhappy with fees that kept children out of sports programs. "They're going to be active doing good things or doing bad things. That's the nature of kids,'' he said.
"The challenge we have as your staff is trying to strike a balance in the budget situation we're in and keeping the fields open … to an acceptable level,'' Pianta said. "That is a very difficult balance to strike.''
Commissioners had a variety of ideas on how to attack the problem. Commissioner Jeff Stabins announced the formation of a nonprofit to raise money to help children who could not pay the fees. He suggested that many people, including himself, had seen significant decreases in their tax bills over the past five years and should consider donating.
Stabins kicked in the first $500 for the initiative he dubbed "Play Ball Hernando.''
Commissioner Dave Russell said he believes the county should again take a look at using some of the money collected through the environmentally sensitive lands fund, an idea that died this summer as residents reminded commissioners those dollars were supposed to purchase and preserve sensitive lands.
But Russell said state land purchase programs have been good to Hernando County and using the money would only be a stopgap until the financial conditions improve. "Is that too much to ask?''
Adkins said he would agree with that. Spending those dollars to allow children to participate in sports was a better use of the money than "buying another Peck Sink park.''
The issue will come back to the commission for further discussion, likely in early November. In the meantime, the commission agreed to hold off on the fees for youth leagues to use the fields while county staff explores other revenue sources and collects additional information.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.