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Many surprised by furlough closings of Hillsborough County offices

A closed sign and locked gates greeted visitors Friday to Simmons Park in southern Hillsborough County near Ruskin.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

A closed sign and locked gates greeted visitors Friday to Simmons Park in southern Hillsborough County near Ruskin.

TAMPA — County libraries: locked. Parks: shuttered. County Center: shut down. It wasn't an official holiday, but a plan to save $700,000 in tax dollars.

Friday was the first of five furlough days scheduled in coming months as part of the Hillsborough County Commission's plan to balance the budget and save jobs.

Emergency services, wastewater plants, solid waste collection and some children's services still operated, as did some satellite offices. But all libraries, parks and recreation centers, senior centers and Head Start offices were closed.

How closed? The book drop-off stations outside the library were literally taped shut.

And it became obvious early on that many of the county's citizens had no idea.

• • •

Kay Buckins marched up to the Fred B. Karl County Center early in the morning to renew her car tag. The deadline: Nov. 1. She had an entire day to take care of it, she thought — until she saw the sign.

CLOSED.

She spun around, muttering. "I can't believe this," she said.

At least she could still drive.

Matrece Wilson took the bus to the County Center to transfer the tag from her old car to her new one. It's illegal to drive her new car until she gets the tag switched out. Now, she said, she would have to take the bus to another tax collector's office or take the bus all weekend.

"This," Wilson said, "is not cool at all."

A security guard said at least 50 people tried to visit county offices from about 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

• • •

A steady stream of library-goers pulled up to the Jan Platt Regional Library in South Tampa and tried, in vain, to open the door.

Abby Critelli needed to get her daughter a copy of A Lesson Before Dying for advance placement English class. Kari Dickerson's son was reading Treasure Island, and she wanted her own copy, to read along.

Now, the moms needed a Plan B.

For Critelli, it was Borders. For Dickerson, an electronic version on the Internet.

"It's too bad," Dickerson said of the closing. But she understood.

"We're all cutting back."

E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin boasts 469 acres of land and preserve, picnic areas, a campground and playground, a boat launch, fishing piers and a beach.

All of it was locked behind a gate Friday when 24-year-old Karli Wilkins arrived in an old car with no air conditioning and four kids ranging in age from three to 10.

"Why is the park closed?" she asked. "What am I going to do? I promised four kids an afternoon at the beach. I don't have enough money for gas to go to Fort De Soto."

• • •

"Am I happy about it? Absolutely not," said County Commissioner Rose Ferlita. She said the furloughs are serving their purpose, but she doesn't want them used as a crutch in the future.

"I'm hoping as we go forward, there are a lot of ways we can look to be more efficient so we don't have to do this."

Ferlita recognizes the inconvenience to those who didn't know the county was closed Friday, and said she would add informational items to future commission meetings to remind people.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he's not sure how the county could have done a better job informing people. "When people are ready to routinely do their work, and then one day they find out we're closed, it's tough. It's hard to get the word out."

He said he hadn't heard any feedback about the day's stalled business, but then again, "I don't have an office today."

County spokeswoman Lori Hudson said other ideas may arise when administrators have informal discussions next week to compare notes about how Friday went.

"There may be some little tweaks that come for our next one," she said.

People have suggested staggering employees' furloughs. Sharpe said that isn't as cost-effective as closing an entire office because much of the savings come from unused energy or other building utilities.

But still, Sharpe said, the library closings were particularly upsetting.

"It's frustrating," he said. "We have to find out ways to save money, but, dadgummit, we've got to provide services."

Mark your calendars now: The next furlough day is Jan. 15.

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello and staff photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

FAST FACTS

Upcoming county furlough days

. Friday, Jan. 15

. Friday, April 2

. Friday, June 18

. Thursday, Sept. 9

Many surprised by furlough closings of Hillsborough County offices 10/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 12:11am]
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