CLEARWATER — Saying they don't want to irritate people, county commissioners gave the go-ahead Tuesday to negotiations that could end with the elimination of the state tollbooth at the entry to Fort De Soto park.
Parkgoers would still have to pay the toll, but they would just pay it to the county employee who collects the entry fee to the park.
Visitors to the park at the southern end of the county have long paid a state toll — currently 35 cents for a two-axle vehicle — to spend the day at the park. But on Jan. 3, Pinellas began charging a $5 admission fee as a way to offset falling tax revenues and to pay for upkeep of county parks.
Although commissioners expected reduced attendance and a loud outcry from enraged visitors, neither seems to have materialized. County officials said Tuesday that they've received more complaints about the inconvenience of having to stop at two booths.
"The complaints I have heard have been about the backup, not about $5," county Commissioner Ken Welch said.
Commissioners agreed to let staff members continue negotiating a possible solution with state officials.
Under the proposal, the state tollboth would be eliminated. The county booth would remain and collect all money.
The amount that would be collected is unclear. Some commissioners supported the idea of collecting only $5. The county would then take the toll out of that amount and send it to the state.
Commissioner Susan Latvala said the "rationale for reducing (the county's) portion is to keep from inciting the public" with the traffic snarl and the need to pay two different governments in quick succession for admission to the park.
"That makes sense to me," Latvala said.
But others, like Karen Seel, thought drivers should pay both the toll and the county fee. First, the county needs the money; and second, the toll is expected to go up to 50 cents per two-axle vehicle on June 30. As tolls increase, the amount going to the county could significantly decrease. Seel also suggested that the county try to set up a system so drivers could use SunPass or a similar system to have the fee automatically paid as drivers pass the booth. Those drivers, she said, should get a discount.
In other action, commissioners agreed that they would like to be at the table when St. Petersburg begins discussions with the Tampa Bay Rays about staying in the county. They asked county attorney Jim Bennett to talk with St. Petersburg's attorney to find out the progress on the discussion and to ask that the commission be included in discussions.
Reach Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.