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Increased Hernando County parks fees are unreasonable

Jeff Parret looked out over a baseball diamond at Anderson Snow Park on Thursday as his 7-year-old son, Jayson, did what kids should do on such cool, gorgeous evenings — play ball.

"He loves it … lives for it,'' said Parret, a landscaper from Spring Hill.

But when Parret heard the cost of signing up for Spring Hill Dixie League next season will climb from $105 to $140, he said his son won't play much longer.

"It's not going to happen.''

An idea that sounded reasonable at a distant time and place — this summer in the County Commission chamber — seems less so now that it is staring people in the face.

On Friday, the county started charging higher fees for parking at Rogers Park and Pine Island, and new ones for launching boats and playing on ballfields and tennis and bocce ball courts. This will bring in an additional $584,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department, rescuing it from the need to make mass layoffs.

The argument for these fees was that residents who use parks should pay a little extra to keep them up.

Fine, except now the extra doesn't seem so little.

The Hernando Youth League runs six different leagues (including Jayson Parret's) that use county fields from Ridge Manor to Spring Hill.

It estimates the new fees — $10 per hour for each field during the day, $15 at night — will cost it $176,438 this fiscal year. That sum will be covered by 1,450 players, which comes to $122 a head.

That's an estimate, said league director Mike Walker, and it will probably turn out to be high. It is based on the number of hours fields were reserved last year, when they were often reserved for more time than they were used. Obviously, that's not going to happen from now on, said Walker, who is also the city of Brooksville's parks and recreation director.

The league can also save by cutting the salaries of umpires and swapping out the replica major league jerseys some players wear for T-shirts.

And I have to say that some of the other fees — $2 to reserve a tennis court for example — don't seem so bad at all.

Still, sports are going to cost families more, a lot more if they have several kids in several leagues. And though Walker says HYL never turns kids away because their parents can't pay, the news hadn't reached Anderson Snow. Several parents there told me they'd already cut back on youth sports — no surprise in a county with a 15 percent unemployment rate — and will have to cut back more now.

As a former HYL basketball and soccer coach, I was always stunned by the number of players being raised by single parents or grandparents. It's fair to assume that a lot of these same families might not have much money, which means children who would benefit most from youth sports — the ones without a mom or dad around — are the most likely to be priced out of playing them.

"Times are tough, and I'm afraid we are hurting people in these situations. … I feel sad about it, I really do,'' said County Commissioner Jim Adkins.

Youth sports, he said, "gets to social involvement. It's exercise; it's meet-and-greet. The kids get a lot more experience than sitting in front of a TV.''

As the father of a top-flight girls basketball player, I'm sure Adkins means all of this.

But he's also one of the commissioners most responsible for these fees. A proposed budget introduced in July was balanced with a slight increase in the property tax rate, one that would have still meant lower taxes for most residents because of falling property values.

It was reasonable, in other words. The fees for parks and recreation could have been reasonable, too.

Adkins and Commissioner David Russell were the first to say they wouldn't support any tax rate increase, and the rest of the board followed their lead.

There's a lot of math in any story about taxes and fees, but the most important calculations here are political.

Take the number of players in youth sports, multiply them by the number of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, add in boaters, tennis and bocce ball players, and you come up with a lot of ticked-off voters.

But in this county, there are also a lot residents who do their playing on golf courses and tennis courts in gated communities. Or who don't play at all. When a county survey asked what services were most important a few years ago, law enforcement and fire protection came out at the top, parks near the bottom.

That's exactly what the commissioners are counting on when it comes to these fees: that voters who care about parks will be outnumbered by the ones who don't.

Increased Hernando County parks fees are unreasonable 10/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 2:03pm]
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