CLEARWATER — Touching the soft sands of nationally renowned Fort De Soto Park could soon pinch pocketbooks.
Pressured to cut $85 million in next year's budget, Pinellas County is considering charging a fee to enter the park, regularly ranked among America's best.
At $3 a person or $5 a carload — pedestrians would still be free — the fee could generate $1.9 million a year, the county estimates. Annual passes for a vehicle would cost $110.
The reaction among some park users: outrage.
"It would be terrible," said Elaine Gibson, 51, of St. Petersburg, who thinks it would be "unforgivable" to charge Pinellas residents.
"The parks are there because they are taxpayer funded. So, what they are saying is, we will need your taxes as usual, plus an entrance fee," said Jason Gullick, 37, of Seminole.
The parks department has suggested $4.4 million in reductions, including cutting lifeguards, park rangers, cultural programs — even plastic baggies for dog poop.
The changes would slash about 30 percent of the park budget, a target all county agencies are trying to reach this spring as Pinellas prepares its next budget.
Paul Cozzie, the county's director of recreation, education and culture, called the cuts and the Fort De Soto admission fee a "worst case" scenario Thursday.
However, some county leaders say they may have no choice but to consider such measures given the double-punch of state-mandated tax cuts and the recession. A decision isn't due for several months. The new fee could go into effect Oct. 1, if approved.
"You basically have so many places to cut. Public safety is always going to be No. 1," said County Commissioner Ken Welch. "What else is left to cut?"
He suggested cuts and fee increases would be a better choice than raising the property tax rate. "I don't see four votes to raise the millage," Welch said.
But commission Chairman Calvin Harris worries about the backlash over charging the public to visit Fort De Soto. Two years ago, a similar fee died.
"At this point, I'm not convinced charging a fee would generate as much as the ill will created by charging it," Harris said.
Cozzie noted in a March 13 memo to the county budget office that the state-run Honeymoon Island already charges an admission fee.
And not everyone seems against paying to go to Fort De Soto.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson of St. Petersburg said she supports the fee because the county's parks need money to maintain them. Already, previous cuts have crimped maintenance and the number of park rangers.
"I would rather see fees increase than see people lose their jobs," said Kurt O'Brien, 38, of Clearwater, whose wife works in county purchasing. "It's one of the most beautiful parks in the world."
It is unclear whether the county would funnel the admission revenue back into the park system. Even if it was, cuts would still be needed, like the proposal to eliminate 27 lifeguards.
Lifeguards at Fort De Soto and Sand Key are among the last remaining crews at Tampa Bay area beaches.
Cozzie suggested the county could implement another new fee — namely charging for parking on the Fred Howard Park Causeway — to provide $390,000 to help keep lifeguards.
But as many as 86 full-time and 27 part-time positions could be eliminated in his division, which includes cultural affairs and operations such as Heritage Village.
Other proposals on the chopping block:
•Closing Market in the Park, the farmers market and seminar program put on by the county extension office, which faces nearly $1 million in cuts to staffing and operational spending.
•Cutting seven parks repair jobs, saving $444,000 but possibly forcing closures at some sites while repairs are delayed.
•Shuttering half the bathrooms in regional parks Monday through Friday as part of $407,000 in janitor reductions.
Cozzie also proposes laying off 16 park rangers, which would leave the county with 31.
"There will be slower park ranger response time to emergencies, reduced park rule compliance, reduced enforcement of parking fees, and Fort De Soto fishing piers will close at 11 p.m. instead of being open 24 hours," Cozzie wrote in his memo.
Plastic baggies to dispose of pet poop? Gone, too, saving $48,000.
That bothered Alice Bates, 68, of Palm Harbor. She takes her yellow Labrador mix Sam to the dog park in John Chesnut Park everyday. She would support paying an entrance fee to the beach, but rolled her eyes at county parks going bagless. Already, she has seen signs of less maintenance, and some people might let Fido do his duty unattended.
"It bugs me they don't keep it up as well," she said.
As harsh as some of the Pinellas recreation and cultural program cuts appear, there would remain almost $80 million to trim even if every proposed cut was carried out with a fee increase.
"It's gruesome," Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said.
County agencies have been ordered to show the effects of slicing 30 percent of spending, though the overall budget cut will be closer to 20 percent.
Some of the proposed cuts may be spared as LaSala and the County Commission make spending decisions this summer. But LaSala said not every county agency can meet its goal, leaving difficult choices for the board.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.