Several Pinellas County parks could get stripped of their resident caretakers as a way to cut spending and meet voters' demands for tax relief.
That possibility shocks some park lovers and many of those who live discreetly in the parks and provide around-the-clock monitoring. They fear a spike in vandalism and a deterioration in park appearance and safety.
"It's almost like we'll have to put a sign, 'Enter at your own risk,' on our front gate," said Dave Hollingsworth, a 34-year department employee who lives at the 128-acre War Veterans Memorial Park near Bay Pines.
Parks that could lose their caretakers are Fred H. Howard, A.L. Anderson, John Chesnut Sr., Philippe, Sand Key, John S. Taylor, Boca Ciega Millennium, War Veterans Memorial, Sawgrass Lake, Walsingham, Wall Springs and Lake Seminole. Fort De Soto Park is not affected.
Roving personnel would replace the caretakers and maintenance staffers being targeted for possible staff cuts, said county parks director Paul Cozzie.
The homes now occupied by caretakers could be leased to law enforcement officers, whose presence should deter mischief, Cozzie said.
"I'm fairly confident with the caliber of employees we have that the average citizen is not going to see a difference in the way our parks are maintained and the visitor is protected," Cozzie said.
Paul Stellrecht, vice president of the Friends of Boca Ciega Millennium Park and a city of St. Petersburg employee, doesn't buy it.
Stellrecht said that even with a caretaker at the 185-acre park, which features a public art exhibit and an archeological site, vandals have struck.
"Nothing substitutes for somebody living there and monitoring the investment that the taxpayers have made," Stellrecht said.
The caretakers are generally available 24 hours a day.
Hollingsworth, 58, who earns $64,000 a year to live in and look after War Veterans Memorial Park, said he has broken up disputes between visitors and aided officials in searches for missing people.
Without him there, he said, the park simply won't be as safe.
"We have isolated wooded areas," said Hollingsworth. "We have lots of patrons in here that could run into problems. They come to us, and we're here."
The possible cutbacks come in response to the January passage of Amendment 1, the statewide property tax relief measure. Parks officials propose axing $4.1-million from next year's spending plan, about 20 percent of the department's current budget.
The parks department has 260 positions, 26 now vacant. The proposal calls for cutting 58 positions, including some vacant ones. Seven of the park system's caretakers are included in the proposed cutback, but officials have not settled on which parks should lose their watchdogs.
Mark Woodard, the chief assistant county administrator, cautioned that the park cutbacks are proposals at this point. Final decisions are months off.
Across the county, government departments are cutting spending. Essential services, such as law enforcement, are less vulnerable compared with government functions deemed nonessential, such as human services and parks.
Is it smarter to trim spending on homelessness and health care for the poor, or from parks?
"It's just a tough decision," said County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "This is the price for tax relief."
Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166 or email@example.com.