TAMPA — Nine-year-old Morgan Felt waits each day for her coaches to walk her to the Westchase Recreational Center.
A short walk from Westchase Elementary School, the center is where she works on arts and crafts, plays games and hangs out with friends until her mother or father picks her up.
All that could change as the Hillsborough County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation copes with a tight budget.
More than 5,600 children will be affected if the county eliminates or revamps its Out of School programs, as recommended by a consultant's plan.
The $325,000 study by companies URS and Bucher, Willis and Ratliff offered several options, the most drastic of which was to eliminate the programs.
The county also could opt to charge a fee to subsidize the costs of the program, which does not charge admission; or turn it over to a third party, such as the school district or a nonprofit organization.
Parks director Mark Thornton pledged last week not to cut the programs, which function both after school and in the summer. But the final decision rests with the County Commission.
"It's going to be a long, hot summer for us preparing the budget," Thornton told a standing-room-only crowd at the Northdale Recreation Center.
Out of School started in 1965 and uses 42 recreation facilities throughout the county. The program's popularity is illustrated by a waiting list of nearly 2,700 children.
Out of nearly $20-million that the parks department spends on free programming, after-school and summer camp account for up to $16-million.
The study, which blamed property tax reform and the economy for a budget shortfall, said the county might want to require fees on a sliding scale, based on income. Thornton said the county now pays about $50 a week for each student in the program.
Another option would be to have the after-school program run by either the school district, the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Clubs. Users pay about $50 a week for those programs. The Boys & Girls Clubs says it charges from $10 to more than $200 for an entire summer.
Many parents say they won't oppose a modest payment to keep these programs going.
As her son played Wiffle ball, Westchase's Barbara Davis suggested charging $100 per school year to parents who use the after-school care program. Most already pay a $50 registration cost for the summer camp programs, she said.
Kathie Felt, Morgan's mother, said she has options, but acknowledged not all parents do.
"We are pretty fortunate, if worst comes to worst, we can find a way to get her home," Felt said. "It would be a huge detriment to a lot more people than just us. People who don't have flexible schedules."
Keri Gibbs of Riverview, a single mother of two, depends on an after-care program there for her daughters Annie and Jessie.
"The $200 I am going to save on property taxes does not even compare to what day care is going to cost me," said Gibbs, who used to spend $800 a month for care. "Fifty dollars a week would still be hard but it would still be cheaper than anywhere else."
While parents contemplate the hardship, employees at the centers also fear their loss.
Dave Lyle and Donna Smith, recreation specialists with the county for more than 10 years, were there when the Westchase Recreation Center opened three years ago. They say that even with 120 kids to watch, they are close to them all.
"They have come to be part of the family," Kathie Felt said. "Morgan's, like, 'I don't want them to not be there anymore.' I think all the kids feel that way."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.