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Pinellas County can't afford to open Largo's Eagle Lake Park early

LARGO — Pinellas County's new $23.6 million park will have something for just about everybody: nature trails, ballfields, a dog park, playgrounds, wetlands and citrus groves.

But don't line up just yet.

While construction of Eagle Lake Park in Largo will be finished five months ahead of schedule, the county says it's too broke to open it before April.

Officials say it would cost about $96,000 in operational expenses to open the park six months early. It's money they say they are hard-pressed to find when next year's budget already required $85 million in cuts.

So the 163-acre park will sit empty, fenced from the public.

"Yeah, it's a failure — on a number of fronts," County Commissioner Ken Welch said, putting part of the blame on spending reductions caused by state-mandated property tax cuts.

The Parks Department also needs to finish the landscaping and add picnic tables, benches and signs — roughly $162,000 in work that normally takes about three to four months and was not included in the current budget, which ends Sept. 30.

"From the construction side, we're very close to project completion and closeout," said Pete Yauch, director of public works.

A few bulldozers pushed through dirt piles this week, and fences and paths were visible in the acres of grass and trees.

The county had projected a December opening for the park at Keene and Belleair roads.

The county paid $15.2 million to buy the land and $8.4 million to build the park at Keene and Belleair roads.

County Administrator Bob LaSala said delaying the park's opening to April was the best way to manage a park system hit hard by budget cuts.

"The park was planned and built in a time of abundance," he said, "and we're not in that time."

Since October, the Parks Department has lost 70 employees. Proposed cuts for the next budget year, which begins Oct. 1, would trim 58 more jobs — cuts that could increase the time it takes to prepare the park for opening.

Commissioner Nancy Bostock said it's time to scrutinize how money is spent in the parks system and focus on what attracts the most visitors.

Doing so could free up money to open Eagle Lake Park earlier, she said.

"We're looking how to cut, and what we need to do is look at how we best spend what's left," Bostock said.

In January, parks officials discussed the cost of the park's opening with top county administrators, said Paul Cozzie, Pinellas director of culture, education and leisure. They decided the Parks Department had to find money for the park's finishing touches without asking for money.

"One of those significant things we've lost with these budget reductions is flexibility," Cozzie said. "We could shift our remaining staff … (but) other parks would suffer. We just don't have the resources to drop what we're doing to get this thing open."

But nobody requested shifting money elsewhere in the county's $1.9 billion current budget to open the park, Cozzie said.

In May, however, the commission approved giving an $85,000 incentive from the economic development fund to an unidentified company to expand in the county. The county also has millions in reserves that could pay to open the park earlier, though top officials have maintained that money should not be spent on recurring expenses but on one-time costs.

According to a budget estimate, running the park for six months would cost $118,000, but would be offset by nearly $22,000 in fees from renting shelters. The costs include having a park ranger rove for 2 ½ hours a day, and maintenance and cleaning costs. It would be managed by a parks supervisor who also oversees three other parks.

The delay disappointed Largo resident Matthew Woodring, who designed a Web site (eagle lakepark.org) promoting the park on his own time. It notes that work there is progressing "nicely." Woodring said he was unaware of the delay.

"Maybe the county should be a little bit more public about those plans," he said, noting the importance of adding green space in that part of Pinellas.

Other parks are feeling the pinch, too. The county's only naturalist is being eliminated at Sawgrass Park, though Cozzie hopes park rangers can fill the void. A dozen park rangers are due to be cut, too. Mowing crews are being reduced.

It's not just in park space.

The county's environmental lands division is losing 15 of its 32 jobs, and the education centers will be open only four days a week, according to preliminary cuts. While county officials have proposed sparing a sheriff-related enforcement unit for those 16,000 acres, county commissioners said the unit could face reductions.

The director of the environmental lands division, Bruce Rinker, recently resigned. His departure, planned for July 21, didn't have anything to do with the cuts, said Rinker, adding he was leaving for a teaching position. But he acknowledged the depth of the reductions will mean the remaining staff will have to work harder.

If anything, Eagle Lake Park joins a list of amenities facing the crunch in Largo.

This week, the county highlighted a Top 5 national ranking in American Heritage magazine for Heritage Village, its living history museum in Largo.

Not mentioned: Its budget has been slated to drop 48 percent.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Pinellas County can't afford to open Largo's Eagle Lake Park early 07/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 2:05pm]

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