Meagan Cox sat in the second row, a stack of print-outs from the county's 516-page budget in her lap and a homemade "Fight 2 Stay & Play" shirt on her back.
Her relationship with the park system began 22 years ago when she went to its after-school program. She eventually became a park employee, and now her 10-year-old daughter is a park kid.
Last week, Cox joined the line of parents, children, coaches and senior citizens behind the microphone at the Brandon Civic Center to question the county's parks and recreation department's plan to eliminate after-school care and close 33 rec centers.
After three hours of accusations, tearful pleas from children and a death threat to the department's director delivered via recitation of a movie quote, the community's message was clear: keep the after-school program and cut elsewhere.
"It's a sense of community, not just a place to drop off your kids," Cox said.
In the face of countywide budget tightening, the Parks and Recreation department plans to trim its budget from $44.9 million to $33.9 million. The department's strategic plan calls for consolidating 42 recreation centers into 12, laying off 27 percent of its staff and outsourcing maintenance work to private contractors.
As it stands, the after-school program will not reopen in August even though the final budget will not be approved by the County Commission until late September.
"Since 2007, all we have done is cut and patch and cut and patch," department director Mark Thornton said. "We've just gone from year to year with no clear direction trying to keep what we have. Fix the ship, let's sail it somewhere."
The county offered buyouts to current staff, equating to 12 weeks of salary and three years of health insurance. And by closing after-school care, the county will consolidate its facilities into 12 regional centers that would offer all of the programs currently provided at centers throughout the county, Thornton said.
Under the proposal, the Northdale, All People's and University Center locations would remain open and unchanged.
Six other centers would be expanded by building a gymnasium, including: Westchase, Town 'N Country, Thonotosassa, Brandon, Gardenville and Ruskin.
The plan calls for construction of two centers in Progress Village and FishHawk Ranch. The county would purchase a building in Keystone.
The 33 closed centers could then be rented out to groups for private functions, county officials said.
Terry O'Grady, who has volunteered as a coach with parks and rec for 29 years, challenged Thornton on the financial viability of his plan.
In the past year, the county has only made $150,000 renting out facilities. Under an agreement with the county, many organizations such as homeowners associations and other nonprofits can use them for free, Thornton said.
O'Grady said he doesn't believe that the revenue from renting could ever equal the revenue from child care, especially if all 33 centers close in August.
"Do it in steps, don't just abandon it," O'Grady said. "There are a lot more steps intermittently."
Thornton's goal is to fill the after-school time with other fee-based programs like karate at each center's discretion. These programs would only be available at the nine revamped centers.
"We are getting out of this business so we can get into other businesses," Thornton said.
The strategic plan is available online at hillsboroughcounty.org/parks/strategic.
Reach Biz Carson at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.