TAMPA — City Council members say they may have made a mistake when they voted last year to increase park fees and require new contracts for independent instructors who teach on park properties.
Council member Mary Mulhern told parks director Karen Palus on Thursday that she wants to see revenue numbers from the new fees as well as changes in program enrollment so the council can evaluate the price increases.
"We all voted for that, but we all had reservations," Mulhern said.
Palus said most of the complaints about park fees have come from people who live outside the city. They now have to pay $115 a year to use Tampa recreation centers. City residents pay $15. In the past, the charge was $12 for anyone who used amenities such as computer labs and fitness centers.
"Did we go over and above when we said $15 to $115?" said City Council member Charlie Miranda. "Maybe I voted wrong."
Council members on Thursday also heard from residents of some low-income East Tampa's neighborhoods, who said the new $25 per week after-school program costs are putting at-risk kids on the streets. Already, enrollment in the Fair Oaks after-school program has dropped from 150 to 30, and Cypress Green has slid from 100 to 30, residents say.
The summer program fees are set to rise from essentially free to $55 a week.
"We're going to have half our children on the streets in summer," said resident Dianne Hart. "We are begging you. Please look at the fee structure."
Tatiana Denson is a single mother of children ages 11 and 12.
"Find another way to raise revenue," she implored. "Pay now or pay for police officers who will be patrolling the area."
In West Tampa, two city employees working at a park near a public housing complex were disciplined for allowing 14 young men to participate in a basketball program without paying the $15 annual fee.
Palus said the city offers scholarships and reduced rates to families that meet federal poverty level guidelines, and so far has received about 950 applications for reduced fees and awarded 30 scholarships. But Palus thinks many more families could take advantage of the opportunities.
Council member Linda Saul-Sena suggested contacting as many former park users as possible regarding the fee options.
"I want this to be a success," she said. "All of us would rather spend the money in parks and recreation than down the road in law enforcement."
As far as the bottom line goes, the department's fee increases have paid off. Collections totaled $761,474 from Oct. 1 through Feb. 1. That's $283,427 more than the amount collected during the same period last year.
The council also voted to reconsider a contract it approved for independent instructors who teach at city parks.
Palus said the city wanted to formalize the contract to satisfy IRS and risk management requirements. And officials expect to increasingly rely on the independent contractors as budget cuts shrink the department staff.
But longtime instructors say the new contracts cost them money, saddle them with too much liability for accidents, and delay payment for weeks.
Council member John Dingfelder told Palus to bring the contract back March 4 for review.
"Just because we voted on it doesn't mean we can't tweak it," he said. "We're running into some issues."
Dingfelder said it was "absolutely disgusting" that a longtime tennis instructor who declined to sign the contract was told he would be cited with trespassing if he returned to the courts.
Parks officials are also trying to get some independent contractors to increase their fees.
When Miranda asked Palus about it, she said the contractors set their own rates.
But an exchange of e-mails between parks program manager Cathie Schanz and Jack Bryan, who has taught lessons in Tampa parks for more than 30 years, show she is pressing him to raise his prices to $40 to $50 an hour so the city's cut covers court costs.
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.