DADE CITY — Budget strife in the Pasco parks department could mean the county will get out of the swimming pool business.
County parks director Rick Buckman has proposed closing the last two county pools, at Veterans Memorial park and at the Land O'Lakes recreation complex, to prevent wider layoffs of staff members who maintain other county parks.
"If we don't do something like this, we're going to continue to degrade the entire system," he said Wednesday during a budget update before county commissioners. "The quality will be diminished."
The county spends about $328,000 each year to operate the two pools and collects about $39,000 in attendance fees. Buckman also listed several costly upgrades scheduled for the next five years, such as resurfacing the pools and replacing heaters.
"The capital costs to keep the pools going sneaks up and gets you," he said.
The pools will close in October, after the normal summer season, unless the county can find a nonprofit group to operate them.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said closing the pools will be painful, but she noted the proliferation of pools at people's homes and at civic associations.
"Back when we had this great idea to build all these pools, (those options) really weren't there," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "It was a good public service."
Besides making it harder for kids to enjoy a cool summer swim, however, closing the pools could disrupt the training for swimming teams at four Pasco high schools. The pool at Veterans park is used by teams at River Ridge and Hudson high schools, and the Land O'Lakes and Sunlake swim teams use the facility on Collier Parkway.
"That would be disappointing," said district athletic director Phil Bell. "We would have to scramble and find a place for our kids. At this point, I do not know what Plan B would be for those four schools."
A similar closure of the Hercules Aquatic Center also forced the Zephyrhills High swim team to relocate. The nonprofit Zephyrhills Police Athletic League agreed to run the pool after last year's county budget cuts, but commissioners ended the contract in January because of unpaid bills. The Zephyrhills High swim team now uses a YMCA pool.
Buckman said he will still ask for $15,000 to keep lifeguards at Anclote River Park, which has relatively stronger currents than other county parks.
Aside from the pool closings, commissioners heard about a relatively bland budget, at least compared to previous years. Early projections call for cutting 16.5 positions, and county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said many of those are unfilled. Also, 17 jobs would be added in other areas of the budget, meaning county employment will grow by a part-time worker.
Nurrenbrock said laid-off workers will be given training and the first priority to fill new jobs.
"There aren't going to be the widespread layoffs that you suffered in the last couple of years," he told commissioners.
No libraries will close under next year's spending plan, and all but the Land O'Lakes branch will continue to operate only 35 hours per week. The $2 parking fee at 11 county parks will also stay. Because of a bumpy rollout, Gallagher said collections would be lucky to hit half of the original $800,000 projection.
Officials will carry over $2 million in economic incentives that weren't used this year, meaning the county will have $4 million to help land a major business. That money could be paired with state cash to build a package similar to the $30 million in incentives offered to T. Rowe Price in 2009.
Wednesday's budget projections assume commissioners will not increase the county's property tax rate, and no commissioner has made a serious move to do so. Commissioner Jack Mariano floated a relatively slight increase to offset the park fees, but his counterparts warn of the impact to businesses.
Two major factors make this year's budget less painful than others. The Legislature reduced the amount that local governments must contribute to the state retirement system, saving the county $5.6 million. Second, deeper cuts in the past two years prevented big cuts this year.
"We faced reality a lot sooner than some of those other local governments," said Commissioner Ted Schrader.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.