NEW PORT RICHEY — Late last year, Pasco sheriff's deputies cited nearly a dozen motorists for failing to pay the new $2 fees at county parks.
Now comes this question: Did Pasco commissioners authorize anybody to enforce payment?
County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder isn't so sure. So on Tuesday, county commissioners voted 3-2 to proceed with changes that will clarify how the fees will be collected through traffic citations.
Commissioners Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson opposed the move, citing their prior opposition to the fees.
Steinsnyder began researching the issue after Mariano raised questions about enforcement of the fees, an honor system setup in which park visitors leave their $2 in envelopes and display hangars showing they paid.
Mariano noted that in public meetings the county staff had consistently described the system as "voluntary," which he said implied that the county could not enforce collections.
"Nowhere in all the conversations that we had was the enforcement provisions going to be mandatory," Mariano said. "Even the Sheriff's Office doesn't want to enforce it because they know they don't have the legal right to."
Other commissioners said they always intended to enforce the fees. "You think you're going to cite potential violators," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said in an interview. "Why else do it?"
Steinsnyder said the problem is that the commissioners' adoption of the fees in September did not directly call failure to pay a traffic citation.
Why didn't this come up earlier? Parks Director Rick Buckman said after the meeting that his staff assumed commissioners authorized enforcement through another interpretation of the fee ordinance. He said none of his employees had written citations.
Steinsnyder said the proposed changes authorize the Pasco Sheriff's Office to issue traffic citations. He said in an interview that the Sheriff's Office has the power to designate parks employees to write the traffic citations.
He said the Sheriff's Office has indicated it would do so.
So do those motorists who got $20 parking citations at three coastal parks last month have a good case to appeal?
"I'm not going to opine on that," Steinsnyder said. He added, however, that he had been told the citations had so far been held up in traffic court.
The ordinance changes will be heard at a Feb. 22 commission meeting.
The enforcement discussion touched off another debate over the $2 fee itself, which was projected to raise $691,000. After about two months, the county pulled in only about $60,000.
Hudson Beach patrons showed up again to protest the fees. Among them were a number of employees of Sam's Beach Bar, the popular waterfront restaurant, who said they were now paying $2 to park in county spots while they are working.
Linda Guadagnolo, Sam's manager, said business was down last month nearly 75 percent from the previous year. She said cold weather and the economy played a role, but she thinks the new parking fees had an even greater effect.
"I really feel the parking has made a big difference in our restaurants," she said.
Some commissioners said the time for that discussion comes this summer as they prepare next year's budget.