TAMPA — Flanked by her three children, ages 6 to 16, Kim Herman had a straight-forward message for Hillsborough County commissioners Thursday night:
"Leave the kids alone."
Herman and dozens of others appealed to commissioners, as parents have for the past four years, to spare county-sponsored after-school and summer parks programs.
She was joined by dozens of county employees, many of them parks workers facing a fourth year of layoffs, imploring commissioners to spare their jobs. With the economy still ailing, they asked commissioners to stop farming out county work to the private sector.
"We do a better job, said Tracy Thompson, a 15-year employee of the county's water department. "We do it for less money."
The at-times-emotional testimony capped a day of debate and sometime rancor as commissioners wrestled with budgetary matters throughout the day. Parks and recreation programs dominated discussions during an afternoon workshop as well as the evening public hearing.
Commissioners signaled during the daytime session that they want to make preserving the after-school parks programs in some fashion a priority. They asked their staff to come back next week with a proposal that would stem proposed cutbacks.
The county is finalizing a $3 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2012, which begins Oct. 1. What they are wrestling with is how to deal with a fourth consecutive year of declining property tax revenues that pay the operating costs of most of the county's publicly visible programs.
Five years ago, the county collected $813 million in property taxes. Estimated property tax receipts for next year are just $561.5 million, down $22 million from last year.
So County Administrator Mike Merrill is recommending another round of job cuts, eliminating another 449 full- and part-time positions next year. One of the hardest hit areas is parks and recreation programs.
Once again, county officials are proposing dramatic cuts to after-school programs. In recent years, parents rallied to thwart proposed elimination of the program. This year, Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Mark Thornton is recommending scaling back the program.
It would consolidate after-school programs at 41 parks to 12 regional parks, some of them needing to be built, and scaling back recreational offerings. Parents who can't get to those parks would need to use programs based at schools or at the YMCA.
Thornton says the challenge is this: The cost to run the program comes out to more than $120 a child each week, while the county collects $23 on average per week.
The county initially offered the program for free. When property tax revenues started declining, commissioners approved a nominal fee. When that didn't keep up, the fee was bumped up to $48 a week, with children from poorer families subsidized.
Enrollment for the program dropped from a high of 6,200 in 2007, with about 4,500 active participants and a waiting list. Today, about 1,800 children use after-school programs, while costs remain the same.
Commissioner Ken Hagan on Thursday asked Thornton and his staff to move forward with shrinking the number of after-school locations. But he suggested increasing the number of locations currently proposed – 12 – by another 10 to 15.
"The unfortunate reality is that our current program simply is not sustainable in the long-run," Hagan said, explaining his support for shrinking the program somewhat.
Commissioner Les Miller said he will ask next week that the program be restored fully.
"I think your plan … reduces the issue to money," Miller told Thornton. "I think that's wrong."
He said it's about children having a place to go after school, and parks are what the public expects government to provide along with police and fire protection.
In other action, Merrill told commissioners how he plans to dole out $2 million the county will get for being home to a gambling casino, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The money will be shared between the Museum of Science and Industry, Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa Bay History Center, the Glazer Children's Museum, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and the Florida Aquarium.
Merrill said it's important to continue to invest in buildings taxpayers helped pay to build and that attract tourists. But his proposal enables the county to wean those entertainment and cultural centers off of property tax money.
Commissioner Sandy Murman said she will also ask the board to support earmarking $1.5 million annually from the county's indigent health care tax to pay for mental health care for some accused of crimes. She is proposing creating a diversion program that would identify people with mental illness who commit minor crimes, keeping them out of jail and getting them treatment.
Those who showed up for the evening hearing had mainly parks after-school programs on their mind. Children waved signs that read "I (heart) parks" and "parks rock."
They echoed Miller's sentiment that commissioners need to focus less on dollars and more on figuring out a way to preserve programs that keep children active and out of harm's way.
In the past, county officials have described the after-school program as a Cadillac offering from a government that can no longer afford it.
Parent Robert Herman, whose three children attend programs at Sadie Park in Brandon, asked commissioners to consider a more modest model.
Jacob Robinson, 19, an alumni of after-school programs at the Ruskin Recreation Center, saw it differently.
"These children deserve a Cadillac program," he said. "Our children are more than a budget."