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Pasco recreation director proposes entrance fees to keep parks from closing

DADE CITY — Here is what Pasco officials call "the worst-case scenario" for the county's parks and recreation programs next year:

• Closing the swimming pools at Land O'Lakes Recreation Center and Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson.

• Closing some of the most popular parks for two days a week. That means Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, Crews Lake, Withlachoochee River Park, Anclote River Park and Key Vista.

• Closing and selling some of the smallest parks, including ones in Trinity, Beacon Square and Aloha Gardens.

All told, the cuts add up to nearly $800,000.

But county recreation director Rick Buckman presented commissioners with a plan that he hopes would avoid the harshest cuts: Raise money through user fees as other counties are doing.

That includes $2 entrance fees at larger parks, including Starkey, Anclote River, Anclote Gulf, Crews Lake and Withlacoochee River parks. Total estimated revenue would be $613,200, minus the $55,000 cost of a meter-type system.

His plan also includes $2 vehicle entrance fees at five other parks including Key Vista, Eagle Point, Moon Lake, Green Key Beach (officially known as Robert K. Rees) and the Suncoast Trailhead. Total estimated revenue would be about $78,000, minus the $15,000 investment in an "iron ranger" system, where visitors are on the honor system to put the fees in an envelope.

Other proposed new fees include $5 launching fees at Hudson Beach (officially known as Robert J. Strickland Park) and seasonal charges to children who participate in co-sponsored sports leagues. Those fees would range from $5 for children who are on free and reduced lunch to $10 for county residents and $15 for out-of-county youth. The new youth fees are expected to raise $128,000.

Taken together, officials hope those new fees could generate $876,000 in revenue.

"Honest to God, I was trying to keep us whole," said Buckman. "Because we're not keeping up with what we have now."

County Administrator John Gallagher, who has said in the past he's no fan of user fees, told commissioners that his hesitation is the lack of certainty: What if people don't pay, or if the projected attendance at the parks doesn't meet expectations because of the fees?

"If the money doesn't come in, I have no place to go," he said.

Commissioners were getting their first official glimpse at how the county departments are trying to close a multimillion dollar deficit. According to documents provided by commissioners, libraries are taking a $845,000 hit and human services nearly $500,000.

County departments alone have needed to cut nearly $6 million. If they scrap the plans for a special taxing district for the sheriff, there would be more money in the general fund — which means the county would owe the cities another $1.2 million in community redevelopment funds. And the sheriff's proposed spending increase brings the total to around $11 million.

Commissioners will meet Monday to decide whether to crank up the millage rate for the general fund to give them a cushion this summer as they hash out next fiscal year's budget.

User fees at parks may turn out to be controversial with Pasco residents, but commissioners complimented Buckman on his idea. Commissioner Michael Cox said he'd seen plenty of parks that used the "iron ranger" honor system when he visited Montana, and it seemed to work.

"It almost seems like we're in the minority" in not charging, he said.

Even if they go with the user fees, officials said, the cuts on Buckman's list could remain on the table.

"As much as I'd hate to close pools, I think that's something we have to consider," said Commissioner Ted Schrader.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco recreation director proposes entrance fees to keep parks from closing 06/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 8:59pm]
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