CLEARWATER — Visitors curdle at unkempt trash at Fort De Soto Park. Volunteers struggle to shoulder the chores of a thinned maintenance staff. Bolts for repairs haven't been properly stocked for years.
Enough is enough, park supporters told Pinellas County commissioners Thursday.
At their urging, commissioners revived a plan to charge $5 a vehicle at nationally known Fort De Soto Park in south Pinellas and the same fee to park at the beach at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.
"We've got to touch the third rail; it's time to start looking at a fee structure at Fort De Soto," said Matt Gaspar, vice president of Friends of Fort De Soto.
Citing maintenance worries, a majority of commissioners informally supported the fees at the work session: Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch.
Seel said her support stops short of building a county tollbooth at Fort De Soto because a state tollbooth is already there. She and Commissioner Neil Brickfield oppose back-to-back stops.
County officials warned that installing meters for the park's 3,000 spaces would be inefficient. Plus, people tend to park along the road.
The debate was one example why proposals for park fees collapsed the past two years.
Besides hearing outcries over new fees, commissioners recoiled at the cost of collecting fees, and how many parks should be included.
However, the idea has new life with another year of budget cuts and limited staff.
"We're at the bottom of minimum," County Administrator Bob LaSala said.
Diminishing staff has left the parks staff unable to restore landscaping lost in winter freezes. Park rangers are spread thin. Mowing is only done every three weeks.
"Try mowing your lawn for three weeks and see how it looks," said Paul Cozzie, director of parks and conservation resources.
Revenue from camping and other activities has increased $700,000 since 2005 at Fort De Soto. But spending has been cut $1.5 million. There are four maintenance workers now, compared to 48 in 2005.
By adding the fees, the county estimates $2.5 million could be raised a year — money that supporters want to stay in the parks budget, either specifically for the two parks or all sites.
Parks advocates, representing groups such as Audubon, hope charging fees at only the beach parks popular with tourists will help their cause. Other county beaches already charge parking fees, and the state charges $8 a car at Honeymoon Island.
"It's absolutely time to start charging an access fee for Fort De Soto, Fred Howard and other parks that are being subsidized for free," said Dave Kandz, a St. Petersburg Audubon member.
Besides a daily fee, the county staff also favors an annual pass of $75. The entrance fee would be reduced or eliminated for low-income visitors.
Friends of Fort De Soto also sweetened the proposal with an offer to buy 500 passes for people who agree to volunteer 10 hours of work.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.