TARPON SPRINGS — County officials plan to start charging a $5 entrance fee at two popular beachfront parks, Fort De Soto Park in south Pinellas and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. But Tarpon leaders are lobbying to have the fee eliminated at Fred Howard.
City Commissioner Chris Alahouzos and City Manager Mark LeCouris recently met with county leaders in an effort to stave off the $5 fee that would be charged to cross the causeway and park at the Fred Howard beach.
The county's plan, Alahouzos said, "is to use the park to generate funds, and whatever excess they have, to subsidize other parks down county. I think that's wrong for the citizens in Tarpon to be financing parks down county."
An alternative suggested by the city: Let Tarpon Springs take over maintenance of the county park.
"It was thrown out there," LeCouris said of the idea. "If you (the county) can't handle the cost of the park maintenance, maybe you can turn it over to the city. We just wanted to know if that would be something that we could put on the table."
Mayor David Archie said he's open to having serious discussions about taking over maintenance of Fred Howard Park, but financially, it might be tough to take on, he said.
"It's a burden I don't think the city has the resources right now to bear," Archie said.
Archie added that if the county implements a fee for parking, "they could at least permit people who live in Tarpon to utilize that park by giving a pass or something of that nature for access."
Paul Cozzie, the county's Parks and Conservation Resources director, said turning over maintenance of Fred Howard Park is not "anything we are working on from a staff's end right now."
The fee was included in the proposed parks budget presented this week to the County Commission.
Cozzie said the county is hoping to avoid park closures by adding the $5 fee at two of the county's most popular parks. If the fee proposal remains in the 2011-12 budget after it is approved in September, the county will start collecting the fee in early October.
"If we don't have the fee, we are looking at another $1.5 million in cuts from parks, and that could mean being closed two days a week or seeing the parks fall into further disrepair with fewer staff," Cozzie said.
It costs about $400,000 a year to maintain the 155-acre Fred Howard Park. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, the park attracts almost 2 million visitors annually.
Fred Howard has two main areas — a mainland portion with picnicking, playgrounds, a kayak launch and walking trails, and the island beach, which is reached by a causeway.
There would be no charge to enter the mainland portion and use the 348 parking spaces there. But visitors who wanted to drive out to the beach would pay $5 to park in one of the 660 beach parking spaces.
That would generate $550,000 a year, Cozzie said. It would cost the county $77,200 a year to pay four part-time parking attendants. That cost would be in addition to about $124,000 needed to install 10 pay-and-display parking stations.
There are plans to offer a $75 annual pass — $55 for seniors. In addition, pedestrians and cyclists would not be charged for beach access.
This isn't the first time the county has tried to add a fee at Fred Howard and Fort De Soto parks. In 2009 county commissioners abandoned the idea after a public outcry. Last year the county administrator proposed it again, but commissioners decided to take money from reserves to avoid implementing the fee.
Bill Joyce, 68, lives around the corner from Fred Howard Park and was vocal in 2009 about his opposition to park fees. He said he and his wife drive to the park's beach every day to watch the sunset. They are there no more than an hour, he said.
"It's going to cost me $1,800 next year to watch the sunset," Joyce said. "People who live outside the city are the ones who should pay the fee. They are all driving through the city, using city streets, the city services for which I pay taxes. It's like a double tax for the residents of Tarpon Springs."
Contact Demorris A. Lee email@example.com and (727) 445-4174.