Closing the park would be worse.
That was the consensus of people at Upper Tampa Bay Park on Sunday, the first day Hillsborough County began charging $2 per car to enter its regional and wilderness parks.
"There's nothing better than getting out in the fresh air and kayaking and fishing," said Sandi Rosas of Town 'N Country. She said she didn't mind paying $2 to check out the park's kayak launch.
The fee is a first for the county and is a sign — as if anyone needed another one — of the times.
Confronted by falling property tax revenues, Hillsborough officials have reduced funding to many programs, instituted five countywide furlough days and eliminated hundreds of jobs, including 22 vacant park ranger positions.
This summer they also proposed closing regional parks two days a week in 2009-10 and four days a week in 2010-11.
After public push-back, officials established the fees as an alternative to keep parks open seven days a week.
Padlocking park gates was "a terrible idea, especially at a time when people are looking for a cheap form of entertainment," said David Smith of Westchase, who was at Upper Tampa Bay Park's playground with his wife, Nikki, and their two young sons.
The park fee is a good option because it lets visitors choose when they use the parks, Smith said.
The fees are expected to generate $3.1 million this fiscal year, county parks and recreation spokesman John Brill said. Without it, the county would have to cut 35 more positions and close parks two to four days a week.
By 11 a.m. Sunday, about 30 cars had paid the entry fee at Upper Tampa Bay Park, ranger Glenn Whiteman said.
A handful turned around because they didn't have the cash.
One woman pulled away, saying there were plenty of free parks. And another, a visitor from Canada, said seasonal residents like her should be able to buy an annual pass at half-price.
While most visitors knew about the new fee, it caught a few people by surprise.
"I was a little shocked," said Kathy Newlan, a 62-year-old licensed practical nurse from Tampa. But when she heard the history, she said it was worth it. "I can understand that."
Countywide, more than 2,100 drivers paid the fee the first day it was charged, Brill said, and demand for annual passes on Monday was brisk.
John Rosas of Town 'N Country didn't balk at the fee but said he hopes he doesn't see in Hillsborough what he has begun to notice in Pinellas, where he pays to launch his boat at Fort De Soto Park. There, Rosas said, the restrooms are not as clean and well-stocked as they once were.
He hopes the $2 he and his wife paid to get in to Upper Tampa Bay Park goes toward upkeep.
"If they're going to use the money properly, I'm fine with it," said Rosas, 53, who works in the soft drink business. "If not, then it disgusts me."