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Hillsborough parks department wants to consolidate programs

TAMPA­­ — Like their counterparts in Tampa, Hillsborough County officials are contemplating a leaner, meaner parks department.

Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department officials want to reduce the number of centers offering staffed programs from 42 to 12. That would mean a longer drive for that arts and crafts class or exercise group.

But it might be easier to fill the classes and retain good instructors with less duplication, said department director Mark Thornton, who unveiled the plan to commissioners Thursday.

The commission took no action on the plan, which will be shared with the public in community gatherings before a decision is made this summer.

With property tax revenue reduced during the recession, parks departments everywhere have looked for places to cut. The changes involve neighborhood programs residents have long enjoyed for little money.

The Hillsborough department incurred a backlash in 2008 when it raised fees for after-school programs. Enrollment plummeted, largely because the school district cut transportation to the centers. Today fewer than 1,800 students use the program, from a high of 6,200 in 2006, according to Thornton's report.

The new plan would keep the smaller centers available for homeowner association meetings, garden club gatherings and other events that do not require county staffing.

County-led programs would take place at regional centers such as the University Area Community Center and the all People's Life Center in east Tampa.

Centers including those in Westchase and Brandon would expand. Others, in locations including Keystone and Progress Village, would be built new.

The estimated $30 million in construction, spread over six years, would come from $7.5 million in yearly savings from phasing out neighborhood programs.

About 170 part-time and full-time workers would lose their jobs, Thornton said. Some of the jobs would be lost in another component of the plan, which uses private contractors to maintain the sports fields.

Thornton's plan also calls for sports leagues to use the athletic fields more evenly. It enhances revenue-producing "eco-tourism" activities at nature parks.

Commissioners, while receptive, made it clear they will get an earful from constituents. Some have heard rumors that parks are closing. Thornton assured them they are not.

Commissioner Victor Crist wondered whether it might make sense for Hillsborough to join forces with the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City to form a regional parks authority.

Commissioner Les Miller lamented the potential layoffs.

"We hate to see anyone lose their jobs," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough parks department wants to consolidate programs 04/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 9:14am]
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