BROOKSVILLE — Youth leagues won't be paying to use the county's athletic fields after all.
The Hernando County Commission voted Tuesday to pay maintenance costs by taking $115,000 from interest earned on the county's judicial center fund and cutting another $115,000 from parks and recreation department expenses.
The decision will not impact adult leagues, in-house leagues and Amateur Athletic Union leagues, which will still pay an hourly field fee.
The commission approved the field fees in August for the budget year that began Oct. 1. But in early October, after negative reaction to the $10-per-hour charge, commissioners suspended the fees and began meeting with youth league officials. They settled on a $20-per-player per-season fee.
Officials estimated that those fees would have generated about $229,400 to help pay for field maintenance, and that was the figure the commission worked to make up in their Tuesday discussion.
Commissioners balked at charging either the field or the per-player fees, saying more county spending cuts were needed before fees are added.
"Have we turned every rock over?'' asked Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who pointed out that there are still two managers in parks and recreation and he wasn't comfortable raising fees until every other avenue was exhausted.
"With a clear conscience, we haven't done all we can do,'' he said.
Dukes said he wanted staff to be sure the county examines "every single penny we can save before we impose fees some people can't afford to pay.''
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins had asked questions about whether the fee could be reduced for lower-income families, possibly like a plan in Pasco County using lists of children on free and reduced-price lunches at school.
But Commissioner Dave Russell expressed concern that keeping track of such a system might eat up all the revenue the fees produced, and Commissioner John Druzbick said that there were enough children from lower-income families that the fees anticipated would be far lower.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said that while he could justify user fees, he realized there was not enough support on the board for such a move so he suggested tapping into the roughly $200,000 in interest generated by the more than $12 million judicial center fund.
Since the commission no longer supports building the free-standing judicial center, the interest from those dollars could offset much of the field maintenance deficit, he said.
Ultimately, Russell suggested that just half of what was needed to make up the deficit could come from that source but the rest could be cut from parks and recreation spending and that plan was approved by the board.
Commissioners also urged staff to explore where cuts can be made and bring those back to a future commission meeting. During the Tuesday meeting, land services director Ron Pianta provided commissioners with a report on the existing park network, the costs of operating the parks vs. the revenues they generate and details of how many parks the county is obligated to provide in the community.
Commissioners also discussed whether another source to help pay maintenance costs should be considered in the future.
Russell recommended that in November 2012, voters could be asked whether a portion of the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Fund tax could be used for the maintenance of county parks. The issue of the ballot question will be brought back to the commission for further discussion at a later date.
The idea is a controversial one, and several citizens urged the commission to abandon the idea because voters approved the tax to buy up environmentally sensitive property, not maintain parks.
"People approve this tax for a specific purpose and now we're trying to change it,'' said Anthony Palmieri. "That's exactly why people don't trust government.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.