After years of allowing residents to meet at area recreation centers for free, Hillsborough County has started charging clubs and groups by the hour.
The new charge, rolled out late last month, caught some groups off guard, leaving them searching for new places to meet, reducing their programming and tweaking the way they govern their organizations.
Under the new ordinance, nonprofit groups must pay $20 an hour to meet at the rec centers. Groups that don't have nonprofit status pay $40 an hour.
In North Tampa, the fees have forced one group to move to a library and decrease the frequency of its meetings.
Another says the fee played a role in canceling Lutz's popular Christmas in the Park. Organizers have traditionally sold cookies and hot chocolate out of a county community center.
"My feeling is how can they call it a community center if the community does not have access to it," said Marilyn Wannamaker, a member of the Lutz Civic Association, which organizes the event.
Meanwhile, the Brandon East Bay American Sewing Guild will become a co-sponsor with the county, advertising Hillsborough programming at sewing meetings and in the guild newsletter. As a result, the club, which meets twice a month at the Brandon recreation center, will not be charged the fee, said president Judy Hasch.
"They're going to get free advertising in our newsletter. I don't know how that's going to go along with our national guidelines because everything in our newsletter is supposed to be sewing-related," Hasch said.
County officials, citing decreased tax revenue and rising operating costs, say the new fee is necessary. County commissioners passed the ordinance in September, and administrators expect to generate about $185,000 a year from the fees.
There are about 55 county recreation and community centers in unincorporated Hillsborough. Most groups will have to begin paying to use them this month.
"I hope that everybody understands this is not an optional issue," said Mark Thornton, the county's director of parks, recreation and conservation.
"This is something we have to do to keep these recreation centers open and regional parks open."
The charge is part of a larger push by the parks and recreation department to increase revenue. Other newly instituted fees include a $2 fee per car to enter county parks and preserves. There are also new fees for boat launching and vendors.
"It's unfortunate that the economy has placed us where we are," Thornton said. "But to continue service levels, we've got to do this."
The fees may be waived for groups that co-sponsor events with the county, said John Brill, spokesman for the parks and recreation department.
Hasch, with the Brandon sewing group, said her group's co-sponsorship is not a perfect solution, but she is learning to live with it.
"I don't know anything else to do."
For the Suncoast Tampa Bay chapter of the American Sewing Guild, the new fees mean paying more than $80 a month to continue meeting at a recreation center in northern Hillsborough's Keystone area.
The 12-member group has met there for the past five years. Each month members finish projects including lap robes for Bay Pines VA Medical Center, hats for newborns at University Community Hospital and dolls that the county's fire department gives to children who lose their toys in fires.
"We are a nonprofit organization," said Pattie McKinnon, vice president of the regional Central Florida guild. "Everything we have is donated, so there is no money to be had."
The rec fees will mean fewer meeting times for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which met weekly at the Northdale recreation center. Members can't afford to stay at the rec center and have decided to meet at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library on Bearss Avenue. The library, however, has space available only twice a month.
"It's an inconvenience to us and to meeting our mission to educate and inform people diagnosed with a mental illness," said Neil Bush, the president of the alliance's Tampa Bay chapter.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3405.