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Pasco officials explain plan to build parks that other entities run

County commissioners this week struggled to find $200,000 to keep the last two county swimming pools open. Parks director Rick Buckman confirmed he's losing five maintenance workers in next year's budget.

Later that same meeting, commissioners formally began asking for ideas for up to three major parks that could be located across the county. All would be filled with amenities but operated by a private entity.

That has many residents scratching their heads — or in some cases, firing off angry messages to commissioners.

Said Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand: "I've gotten e-mails and phone calls saying, 'Are you blankety-blank crazy? You're building three parks and you can't afford to take care of what you have.' "

Added Buckman: "This county is shut down on building additional facilities unless they're operated and maintained by another entity. But that isn't understood very well. Even my own staff asks the same question."

We talked with commissioners and other county officials to try to answer other questions people might have:

So, what's up with this funding conundrum?

It comes down to this: The county has millions of dollars socked away to build new parks, but the money is specifically set aside for construction. Cash for operations and maintenance comes from the county's general fund, which is paid for with property taxes. As tax receipts dry up because of falling property values, that money becomes more scarce.

In short, the county has plenty of money to build new parks, but is running out of cash to maintain them.

Over the years, the county has considered several proposals to create a public facility that would be run by a private entity. An original plan for a tennis center in Wesley Chapel fell apart in 2009, after Saddlebrook and county officials could not agree on an operating contract. The county then negotiated with California-based Sportsplex to build a multi-field softball center at Starkey Ranch. Those talks broke down in March.

Now, officials hope to generate private interest at these three new sites.

Where would the new parks be located? What kind of amenities would they have?

The county is considering parks at the old SunWest mine property in Aripeka, at Starkey Ranch near Trinity and in Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass development.

The SunWest park would have a pair of man-made beaches on a lake near the gulf and a cable-based course that allows people to wakeboard without using a boat. The Starkey site would include a similar wake park on a smaller lake, a cycling track and a skate park. It would also have a mix of baseball and soccer fields for tournaments and public use.

The Porter family wants to build a 160-acre ballfield complex nestled near the future town center of the family's Wiregrass development. The site would be mainly focused on bringing dozens of youth sports tournaments.

Proposals with specific amenities and funding arrangements are due in two months.

Why build so many new parks?

That's just the question on the mind of Commissioner Ted Schrader. The commission on Tuesday approved three solicitations, one for each area of the county. "This leads you to believe we're going to do three separate projects, and I can't move forward with that," he said.

Schrader said he wants to focus on one park in order to draw in as many tourists as possible and ensure the county doesn't have to subsidize operations. He pushed for a clause in the solicitations that says the county can accept or reject any — or all — of the proposals.

How much construction money is out there?

The county has $7.5 million in sales tax proceeds, $11.4 million in tourist development taxes and $21 million in park impact fees. Impact fees are further restricted by region: west Pasco has $10 million, central Pasco has $8.5 million and east Pasco has $2.6 million.

What can the county use impact fees for?

Impact fees are one-time charges on new development that can only be used on parks that serve new growth. For example, officials plan to spend $1 million to build a small community park in Trinity, which saw many new residents come in during the past decade but has relatively few nearby parks.

If a park built to attract out-of-town visitors is built with impact fees, it must also have a proportionate amount of public access so nearby residents can also enjoy it.

What about tourist taxes?

Half of Pasco's 2 percent levy on hotel nights is set aside for construction. Pasco has saved nearly all of that money since it began collecting that tax in 1991. But state law says those taxes can only be used to create more tourist destinations or enhance existing ones. They can't be used to build a park for local residents. A park built mostly for locals using some tourist money would have to prove that it also attracts visitors who stay in hotels.

Didn't the new parking fees save the park system?

The $2 per day parking charge at 11 county parks was projected to bring in $656,000 in the first year. Current collections are about a third of that, largely due to an awkward roll-out of the fee. Buckman hopes to collect the full amount in next year's budget by having parks staff provide more regular enforcement and by putting electronic payment machines at Starkey Wilderness Park and Anclote River Park.

In any case, officials say the fees are intended to stave off further cuts, not bolster the park system.

Why is money for parks always on the chopping block?

Part of the reason stems from a new budgeting system the county adopted a few years ago. The system prioritizes county spending into four categories. Emergency services and public safety, for example, is in the top tier.

Parks are a mixed bag. Routine maintenance like mowing the lawns at Crews Lake Park is also in the top tier. But striping baseball diamonds and other athletic fields upkeep takes up nearly half of the parks budget. That's in the third section and faces larger cuts during a budget downturn. Money for pools and the aquatics program is in the fourth tier, which is why they could be eliminated in next year's budget.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco officials explain plan to build parks that other entities run 08/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:06pm]
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