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Parks director Pat Fagan life's work is showing wear, tear

Pat Fagan is one of those lucky people with tangible career accomplishments — ones he can point to through a car window, even walk around and show you.

Spring Hill's Delta Woods Park was a "sand pit" with a few half-built tennis courts when he was hired as the county's parks and recreations director in 1978.

There are eight tennis courts now, plus courts for handball, bocce ball, basketball and shuffleboard; a walking trail; a playground, and soccer fields. Enough people use these facilities that, even on a Thursday morning, when Fagan and I stopped by, the parking lot was jammed.

Veterans Memorial Park didn't even exist when Fagan arrived. Neither did the soccer and baseball complex at Anderson Snow Park. The backstops and bleachers at Ernie Wever Youth Park, north of Brooksville, were cobbled-together structures that the county soon replaced.

I could go on, but it's as simple as this: Hernando County barely had a park system 33 years ago; other than the lack of a swimming pool, it now has an extensive one, with facilities in every corner of the county — some geared for athletes, others for anglers and sunset watchers.

Most were built with state grants and impact fees. And for most of Fagan's tenure, they were maintained like high-end golf courses.

"Until a few years ago, these were some of the nicest fields in the state," Fagan said as he walked on a soccer field at Veterans.

Not anymore. Tattered nets hanging from soccer goals, turf that is more weeds than grass, bare and gnarled shrubs, playing surfaces with pits and ripples that look like booby traps for fragile ankles — we saw such sights at every park we toured.

"It makes me sick," Fagan said.

This is the unlucky part of his career, that much of what he worked to build is starting to fall apart because of cuts in the parks maintenance budget. The budget has dropped from $3.8 million in 2007 to $2.2 million currently, though the actual expenditure will probably be less than that because of another unfortunate aspect of Fagan's time with the county: The most recent cut was his $87,500-a-year job.

The issue is not just the coldhearted separation agreement that forbids Fagan, 61, from suing the county for wrongful termination or bad-mouthing anyone who works there. Though bad-mouthing has never been his style, he said he has no plans to sign this agreement before the deadline, Thursday, which as far he knows will be his last day on the job. And because staying on as a School Board member would force him to defer his county pension, he'll have to quit that post, too, he said.

No, the issue is bigger than the terms of his departure. In letting Fagan go and letting parks go to seed, the commission is saying his life's work doesn't matter much. It's saying that parks are nice to have when we can afford them, but not really important — a luxury, not a necessity.

I disagree. Remember, we live in a time when the default position for many, many children is sitting in front of a video screen, pretending to shoot people. These are minds and bodies starving for teamwork, fresh air and exercise.

There's also the role of parks in defining a community. A few years ago, on a family trip to the Panhandle, we stopped for lunch at a city park off U.S. 19. Looking at the litter in the bushes and the rusty, lethal-looking playground equipment, my wife and I decided to never, ever set foot in that town again.

The immediate cause of Fagan's departure was the commission's unwillingness to charge athletic leagues the extra money needed to maintain fields. Sure, parents who can pay should. But that the parks budget ever came to depend on the small sums that can be wrung out of sports leagues shows the priorities of budget cutters — that they aren't looking for the most expendable services, but the ones with the least political protection.

I'd argue that parks we can be proud of are more important than having a full complement of workers in the offices of the supervisor of elections or the clerk of courts; they are more important, and less expensive, than making sure judges have their own courtrooms or that our boaters don't suffer the inconvenience of a too-narrow channel to the Gulf of Mexico.

Fagan, for all his good work, was never a forceful advocate for his department's mission, probably because, as he told me, it would have long ago cost him his job.

So, speaking up for parks is the duty of the people who use them — the mothers I saw Thursday pushing strollers on the Delta Woods walking trail, the tennis and bocce ball players. It is up to the parents of youth baseball players who complained so loudly about the increased fees to come before the commission this summer, when it counts, during budget season.

Parks director Pat Fagan life's work is showing wear, tear 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 10:07am]
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