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Hillsborough commissioners approve controversial scaling back of after-school programs

TAMPA — A divided Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to dramatically scale back after-school parks programs, a budget cut that has drawn spirited condemnation from parents.

But commissioners left open the prospect of revisiting the issue, planning to talk next month about whether they can keep the programs operating at more parks than were approved Wednesday.

"I think we're probably far away from a resolution on this," said Commissioner Sandra Murman, saying she thinks a broader board discussion on how it serves children is needed.

The vote came as commissioners met to make some of the main unresolved budget decisions needed to set a tentative property tax rate for next fiscal year. Commissioners agreed to shave a tiny fraction from the current rate, reducing the county's portion of the tax bill on a $200,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption by 72 cents.

The rate tentatively set for unincorporated areas is about $10.76 for every $1,000 of taxable value. Commissioners can lower the rate before September when they pass a final budget, but can't raise it.

The parks dispute has represented one of the thornier decisions on their plate as they wrestle with a $3 billion budget.

For now, the commission vote means that after-school programs operating at 42 county parks will be consolidated at 11 regional recreation centers. The vote was 4-3, with Commissioners Ken Hagan, Les Miller and Victor Crist opposed.

Prevailing commissioners said the county can no longer afford the $7.5 million service that has seen its enrollment dwindle since fees were introduced in an attempt to recoup costs.

Hagan said he agreed. He nevertheless is floating a proposal to keep the programs operating at 30 parks. He also wants to see an analysis of whether fees could be lowered to draw more kids and bring in more paying customers.

"It would be fiscally irresponsible to ignore the reality," Hagan said. "I think we can do better."

Under the plan approved Wednesday, children who don't live near one of the regional parks would be encouraged to use the HOST program, an after-school program offered at more than 130 elementary and middle schools. It costs the same as the county service, $48 per week for each child with discounts available to low-income families.

The county used to offer its after-school programs for free. When property tax revenue began declining in recent years, county officials targeted the programs for elimination as a luxury they could no longer justify.

Parents rallied on their behalf, agreeing to fees that were implemented and then increased. Enrollment declined from a high of 6,200 in 2007 to 1,800 currently, with average weekly fees collected per child at $23 after low-income discounts.

At a public hearing last week, the after-school program was the prevailing topic. Among other things, speakers argued that the county service, with multiple structured offerings from athletics to crafts and tutoring, is far superior to the school district's HOST program.

Gwen Luney, an assistant superintendent for Hillsborough County schools who oversees the program, noted it has 8,000 children enrolled. She said supervised outdoor activities are offered as well as homework assistance and access to school media centers.

"We try to make sure we work with every parent … to give (them) a safe, wholesome opportunity for their children," Luney said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commissioners approve controversial scaling back of after-school programs 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:49pm]
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