NEW PORT RICHEY — Nearly a year after commissioners voted to slap citations on those who ignore the $2 parking fees at several county parks, workers are beginning a stepped-up enforcement program.
Up until this month, officials were relying on sheriff's deputies to issue the tickets. But the program has never been a top priority for law enforcement.
"Most of the concerns expressed over the last six months have been that we are not enforcing the fee," said parks director Rick Buckman. "They say things like, 'I understand the need for the fee, I don't want my property taxes to go up. Why aren't you enforcing it for everybody?' "
So far, six parks employees have been trained as citizen parking enforcers, working under the authority of the Sheriff's Office. More workers will be trained in the coming weeks.
Workers will conduct spot checks at the 11 parks where visitors must pay the fee. People who haven't paid up could get a $20 ticket.
Buckman said he doesn't have the manpower to schedule daily checks, but visitors should notice increased enforcement.
"It could happen at any time at this point," he said.
Parking fee collections lagged last year, only reaching roughly half of the projected $650,000. Richard Mager, a volunteer at Starkey Wilderness Park's information kiosk, isn't surprised.
He watches many scofflaws put an empty envelope into the collection bin and take the receipt for their dashboard. Sometimes they simply stuff the envelope into their pockets.
"Some do pay, but the majority of them don't," he said. He suggested the county look into a system similar to state parks where visitors pay an attendant at the front gate.
"Just use the same guys giving out parking tickets and have them stand by the gate in a little booth, collecting the $2," he said.
Besides the increased enforcement, this year's budget also includes money for two electronic payment machines at Starkey and Anclote River Park.
Despite Mager's skepticism, there was a stream of honest visitors to Starkey on Thursday morning. Most folks popped out of their cars near the pay station, money in hand. Others who drove by had one of the $60 annual park passes hanging from their rearview mirror.
"The cost to not pay is definitely much higher than doing so," said Christy Pagano, of Hudson, who brought her 2-year-old daughter to the park along with another mother-daughter pair. "If we do have to pay, it's nice that it's a low amount."
Added Pennsylvania snowbird Peggy Clark: "We don't mind paying the fee. We feel it's a beautiful park. I just don't feel like funds for parks should be cut."
Over the past four years, the parks department has lost a third of its budget because of falling property tax collections. Buckman said he relies on the fees to stave off further cuts. His goal is to encourage people to comply with the fees, not to issue traffic tickets.
"If I was standing there writing a ticket, and somebody came up to me and said, 'Here's the two bucks,' I would void the ticket," he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: The Suncoast Parkway trailhead at State Road 54 is among the 11 county parks where visitors must pay a $2 parking fee. The original version of this story omitted that location.