TAMPA — For years, April Wilkosz's two sons have spent their summers at the Northdale Recreation Center under the supervision of county camp counselors. For just $50, they participated in 10 weeks of supervised activities while their parents worked.
"I pay all these taxes, and it is just an amazing benefit," Wilkosz said. "I've recommended it to everyone who has children."
Things are about to change.
Now parents are going to have to shell out a lot more for summer care by the county — five times more.
The Hillsborough County Parks Department, which runs programs at 43 sites, has raised the rate to $300 because of budget cuts, spokesman John Brill said. The Parks Department lost 5 percent of its $52 million budget this year and is bracing for more cuts during the next couple of years.
Some say that's not enough to justify such a huge hike. At least one parent has been battling the department for almost a year. He blames the spike in summer camp rates on something else: the county's decision to charge for its after-school care program.
In January, the county started charging for after-school care. Once that happened, the centers became day care facilities. That meant that the county had to meet strict state and county licensing requirements such as training and certifying all 260 staffers and renovating buildings.
The cost to accomplish all this? About $150,000.
"It's absolutely ludicrous," said Kevin Kenny of Odessa, whose three boys have all gone through the county's summer programs. "They've incurred significant costs and now they need to make up the money somehow."
County Commissioner Ken Hagan said the decision to raise rates had nothing to do with child care licensing.
"The fees are the result of one thing and one thing only," Hagan said. "And that is the fact that the last two years, we've reduced our budget by $160 million and we're getting ready to reduce it by $114 million."
Last year, county administrators had recommended that the after-school program be eliminated, but an outcry by parents led to the change. Hagan said charging a fee was the only way to save it.
But by doing so, Kenny predicts there will be more children at home unsupervised because the new rates have priced some families out. "This program, that is run on our tax dollars and our tax dollars alone, and had a waiting list, was changed," Kenny said. "They've now increased it by six times. C'mon, where's the justification in that?"
Brill said he didn't know how officials came up with the $300 figure for summer camp, which drew about 8,500 children last year. However, he said the cost to put a child in the after-school program, based on a formula, was $42 to $45 a week. The county works with families by offering discounts based on income and siblings. The actual cost for summer camp is $73 per week per child, he said.
Brill said it is too early to tell how many people will opt for other programs because sign-up for the summer camps hasn't begun. However, a look at the numbers for the after-school program shows a drop in participation and the waiting list.
The average daily attendance for the after-school program last year was 4,459, he said. For the first two months of this year, when the county began charging, the average was 3,515. There were 2,756 kids on the waiting list last year. This year: 951.
"Some of that is probably because of the change," Brill said.
Wilkosz, a 48-year-old banker from Citrus Park, said she used the camp as backup child care for her boys, ages 15 and 13, who would go to the rec center when not in other camps. She will most likely sign them up again because even at the new rate, it's still low compared to other programs. Some run $300 just for the week.
"It's such a low hourly rate, I can't say (the hike) is unreasonable," she said. "But it's going to be hard for a lot of parents to afford it."
Hagan said his staff looked into the licensing to see if there was any way around it and "unfortunately, there wasn't. We had to comply with the law."
"All governments are having to change the way they operate. It's not business as usual," Hagan said. "It's unfortunate, but that's the reality."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or email@example.com.