CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission rejected a slate of proposed new park fees Tuesday, including a controversial $5 fee to enter nationally known Fort De Soto Park.
Earlier this year, county officials said they needed the fees to close a $900,000 budget shortfall in 2011, or they could be forced to close parks two days a week. But Tuesday, commissioners voted to use a reserve fund to cover that deficit.
It was a unanimous vote against a priority of County Administrator Bob LaSala, though several board members expressed concerns about the effects of their vote.
"We're kicking the can down the road," said commission Chairwoman Karen Seel.
LaSala proposed a $5 fee to enter Fort De Soto Park and $3 to park at other regional parks and preserves. Faced with possible park closures and other cutbacks, some environmentalists supported the idea, but the fees still generated opposition.
In a switch, Commissioner Ken Welch — previously a top supporter of the fees — voted to oppose them. He joined Commissioner Calvin Harris to successfully propose tapping a $20 million reserve fund being set aside to help cover a roughly $40 million deficit projected for 2012. The board also used reserves to reduce cuts in code enforcement and homeless services.
"We don't have to do this now," Welch said, referring to imposing new fees.
Harris said he didn't believe the county was in "dire straits."
"I want to see the budget book that Calvin read," Commissioner Susan Latvala replied, adding that "it's a mistake not to do this. Yes, it's very painful." But she still voted to kill the fee plan.
Harris and Latvala are seeking re-election this year against opponents critical of county spending, and in most cases, the park fees.
Besides fees, the county would have created a $75 annual pass for park entry. Seniors and people on government assistance would have paid $55. Cyclists and pedestrians were to be exempt.
The fees would not have affected beach access parks that already have meters.
The fees would have raised $2.7 million a year, based on an assumption park visits would drop by 30 percent. But collecting the fees would cost $660,000 a year with a staff of 14, the county staff estimated.
That roughly 25 percent cost to collect the fees bothered Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who questioned adding the overhead. The largest portion is enforcement, and without that, LaSala said "the program won't work."
Constructing a toll booth, buying and installing 72 meters and reconfiguring the road at Fort De Soto would result in a one-time cost of $1.1 million.
The state has a toll booth near Fort De Soto already, but the county and Florida couldn't agree to share the booth to save money. That means visitors would face back-to-back toll booths.
"That's why I moved away from New Jersey," Commissioner Neil Brickfield said.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.