BROOKSVILLE — The County Commission on Tuesday wrestled with two issues tied to how, during a period of falling revenue, Hernando can still provide parks and other community amenities through user fees.
First, the commissioners agreed to enforce the park and boat ramp fees they put in place last year.
Next, they tabled a plan to implement fees for using athletic fields. Instead, they will once again look for a way to tap into the county's sensitive lands fund to maintain county parks.
Approving the ordinance to enforce the park parking and boat ramp fees got commissioners out of an awkward situation they created in early December when they rejected an ordinance that would have allowed law enforcement officers and county employees to issue $40 citations to those who fail to pay to park at several parks and use the county's boat ramps.
Those fees apply at Alfred A. McKethan Park at Pine Island, Rogers Park on the Weeki Wachee River, the Centennial Rotary Dog Park and use of all county boat ramps.
From Oct. 1 through December, the fees generated nearly $43,000.
But once the public learned there would be no enforcement, some residents had begun to seek refunds for annual fees they had already paid. Others talked about not paying when they visited parks.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes had said that it could be a safety concern to have county employees handing out citations.
After the strong public reaction, Dukes said he spoke with the sheriff and learned that he was willing to have deputies swing by the parks periodically to provide enforcement, taking county employees out of the equation. Because of that, Dukes said he was willing to change his vote on the ordinance.
Commissioner John Druzbick was the sole no vote Tuesday. He continued his opposition to the park fees, saying that he did not believe staffers had done all they could last year to cut spending.
He listed several areas where money could have been saved, including the county's contribution to employee health insurance for their families, additional savings from department consolidations and raising funds through selling unneeded county-owned land and buildings.
Dukes was critical of the county's entire process of approving the fees. He said that the program, including enforcement, should have been approved before the county purchased and installed parking meters.
"This whole program was done backwards,'' he said.
Pat Fagan, parks and recreation manager, apologized and said that the program from this point on would be run correctly.
As for using athletic fields, commissioners in August approved $10 per hour daytime and $15 an hour nighttime fees.
Shortly after they were put in place on Oct. 1, there was a flood of criticism from youth leagues. The fees were suspended pending a review by Parks and Recreation officials.
After meeting with youth league officials, the county proposed a $20 per-player per-season fee. Adult, outside and AAU leagues would pay the $10 per hour field use fee.
Any team using the fields at night with lights would have paid $15 per hour.
On Tuesday, commissioners heard from some youth league officials that the $20 was understandable but others were adamantly opposed and claimed that much-needed youth activities would fade if such a fee were charged.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested tabling the action. He said he still wants to find a way to use some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the county's sensitive lands fund to pay for park maintenance. His suggestion was tapping the fund for the next two years, then asking voters in 2012 if such a use was acceptable.
If voters say no, the fund could be paid back with money taken from the county's stormwater fund, Russell suggested. Other commissioners agreed to a delay in the discussion while details are worked out. The topic is expected to be on the Jan. 25 commission agenda.
Dukes said he wanted the county staff to bring back a plan that would show how to cut spending on parks even more than it has been cut in the past including a plan for which parks should be targeted for closure.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.