CLEARWATER — People will still be able to sit on Fort De Soto Park's white sandy beaches and watch the sun sink into the horizon — it's just going to cost them.
Pinellas County officials said Thursday they have little choice but to start charging a $5-per-car fee at Fort De Soto, as well as Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.
"I think we have put this off for as long as we can responsibly do it," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "We don't want to impose these fees, but I think at this point, we have to."
Successive years of budget cuts have left trash piling up, the grass overgrown and bathrooms unkempt at county parks.
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala gave commissioners a choice: Back the fee or face $1 million or more in park cuts — reductions that could shutter county parks two days a week.
Commissioners Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch supported the fee and directed staff to include it in next year's budget, which begins Oct. 1. It is expected to generate $2 million a year.
Hourly meters already suck in coins at other county-run beaches, such as Sand Key Park. But Fort De Soto remained free once visitors passed state tolls.
The parks are the county's most popular. Fort De Soto had 2.8 million visitors last year; Fred Howard had 1.6 million.
"It's long overdue," said St. Petersburg activist Lorraine Margeson. "The degradation to the park system is already occurring. It's high time they finally made the decision."
A recent poll showed more than 66 percent of people were willing to pay a fee at Fort De Soto, according to random phone survey of 267 residents. The poll, taken April 19-29, had a margin of error of 6 percentage points. The commission conducted the $5,700 survey after hearing from park supporters who bemoaned the state of those parks.
Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who along with Norm Roche opposed the fee, said collecting it at Fort De Soto could be overly complicated.
If the county installs a pay gate at the park, it would be about 2 miles from a state booth that collects a 35-cent fee.
Parking meters would be a challenge as well. Fort De Soto has 3,000 marked spaces and even more unmarked spaces.
Roche called for using the county's tourist tax to help maintain the beach parks starting in 2015.
"We need to offset the costs of operating the parks now — not in 2015," Latvala responded.
Without new money, LaSala demanded steep cuts to parks to close a more than $3 million shortfall in his departments.
The $2 million generated from the fee would be used to offset the $1 million in required park cuts. The other $700,000 would be used to restore previous cuts to rangers and maintenance staff, with the final $300,000 earmarked for improvements.
No date was set to start collecting the fee, which won't become official until the commission approves the budget.
There was no polling of public sentiment for fees at Fred Howard, but the proposal was blasted last year.
Dale Piskie, 69, a frequent visitor, said she understands the need at Fort De Soto. But charging at the much smaller Fred Howard is unfair, she said.
"I'm going to pay $5 to go see the sunset?" scoffed Piskie, a 12-year resident of Tarpon Springs.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter @DeCampTimes