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Spare Bonner Park from budget cuts, Largo commission majority says

To balance the budget, staff recommended closing two parks, including John R. Bonner Nature Park.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

To balance the budget, staff recommended closing two parks, including John R. Bonner Nature Park.

Things are looking up for a beloved Largo nature park that appeared headed for closure.

City staff proposed shutting John R. Bonner Nature Park to trim the budget for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

But at least four of seven city commissioners, including Mayor Pat Gerard, say they either don't want to close the park or shut it entirely.

Another city leader, Commissioner Robert Murray, said he's leaning toward keeping it open.

The final decision will be in their hands when they vote on the budget in September.

Over the past few weeks, dozens of residents have bombarded City Hall with e-mails, calls and in-person pleas to keep the park open. A few have confronted Gerard at the grocery store, she said.

At last week's city meeting, Gerard made her choice clear during a discussion of a cap on next year's property tax rate, set at $4.31 per $1,000 of taxable value.

"This may not be the proper time, but I just want to say Bonner Park is not going to get closed," said Gerard.

"It's not an official vote but I agree with you," replied Commissioner Rodney Woods.

More than a dozen residents who spoke at the meeting said they were upset by news that Largo may close the park, where they come to relax, walk their dogs and spend time with their families.

Gerard was miffed that the fears may have been intensified by signs on city letterhead posted at Bonner and the Largo Central Park Nature Preserve about possible closures.

"I'd like to know who hung the signs saying that the park is going to close before we even had a chance to talk about it," she said.

She and other city commissioners want to know how much it will cost to keep Bonner open.

Figures tossed around by staff have ranged from about $35,000, for Bonner, to $150,000, for maintenance and staff at both Bonner and the Nature Preserve.

Joan Byrne, director of the city's Recreation Parks and Arts Department, said coming up with an exact figure for just Bonner is difficult. One key reason is that workers provide a range of services at various city parks, not only Bonner.

Byrne, who was asked to slash about $1 million from her budget, proposed cutting the equivalent of about 13 full-time positions to do so.

Even without the concrete estimate, Commissioner Woody Brown said he wants to keep Bonner open.

"If we need to look elsewhere for savings, then I'm willing to do that," Brown said Tuesday.

Commissioner Harriet Crozier said there may be other options besides gating the park all year. If necessary, she would consider closing Bonner and other parks for two or three days a week, she said.

"I think there are other avenues we can take without having to close it completely," she said.

Vice Mayor Gigi Arntzen hasn't made a decision about Bonner yet. But she said she wouldn't raise taxes to avoid closing it, she said.

"You can't raise the (tax) rate to keep the park open," she said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 445-4155.

Spare Bonner Park from budget cuts, Largo commission majority says 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 10:14pm]
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