It seems like an easy call. Two bucks to enjoy the great view at Anclote River Park. Same deal at Hudson Beach, Green Key or the jewel of Pasco's park system, Starkey Wilderness Park. It's a bargain, right?
Not for Commissioner Jack Mariano.
It's been almost two years since he was on the losing end of a 4-1 vote to start charging a $2 parking fee at 11 county parks. Not only is he still fighting the move, but he has turned the fees into a defining issue of next week's primary election.
"I just can't let it go," said Mariano, who is also steamed about new $10 fees for youth sports participants. "I don't think you should be taxing the things you want to encourage."
Now the Hudson-based commissioner is seeking a third term representing District 5. He faces New Port Richey minister Bill Gunter in Tuesday's winner-take-all primary that is open to voters of all parties.
Mariano isn't a single-issue candidate. He highlights growth policies that encourage office and industrial projects by giving them a break on transportation fees and eliminating associated traffic studies. He's also proud of his work to help out individual citizens or neighborhoods.
But he's probably best known for his fervent opposition to the park fees. He said he's simply speaking for citizens who are tired of "paying more and getting less."
Mariano came out against the new fees just as commissioners were finishing the budget in September 2010. He had earlier voiced no opposition to the plan. That brought charges of "grandstanding" from former Commissioner Michael Cox, who is now supporting Gunter.
Now the fees are a bona fide campaign issue, splitting the 10 Republicans aiming for three commission seats on the primary ballot. Five other candidates agree with Mariano's push, while four would keep the fees. "If they feel the same way, then they should jump on that issue," he said.
Not everyone feels the same way.
"I think it's a fair fee for individuals who choose to use the park," Gunter said. "We have fees for all sorts of things. . . . It's a $2 fee, and most people are okay with that."
Karen King, running in a crowded District 3 primary to replace retiring Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, said the fees are a nonissue. She went out of her way to campaign at Hudson Beach, where many parkgoers said the fees are a bargain.
"I've gone to the parks myself," King said. "Didn't have two singles. So I had a five, and threw the five in. Where are you going to go? At Howard Park, it's $5."
Last year, Mariano asked county staffers to calculate the property tax increase needed to scrap the fees. Now, that figure is a central part of his argument: $2.12 for $50,000 in assessed value.
He uses that example because it's roughly equal to Pasco's median home value if the owner receives standard exemptions.
Critics point out that business owners would pay significantly more in higher taxes.
Mariano has a ready retort. He polled the county's top taxpayers, and asked if they would mind a slightly higher tax rate if the park fees were dropped.
"Except for one person, who didn't want to take a position, they all said they wouldn't mind," he said.
Because of an awkward rollout, the fees only collected about half of the projected $860,000 in revenue in the first year. Mariano pointed out that the county dipped into reserves to cover the balance.
Mariano wanted to include a question about the fees in the county's citizen survey conducted this spring. He lost that battle, with a majority of commissioners arguing residents typically favor user fees over higher taxes.
So he put out his own survey. He attached three questions about the fees to the bottom of the petition form candidates use to qualify for the ballot. Of the 3,500 people who responded, 86 percent wanted to get rid of the parking fee.
"I'm looking at quality of life," he said. "I want families to enjoy their lives in Pasco County."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.