Parks, after-school program spared budget ax by Hillsborough Commissioners

TAMPA — An after-school program at Hillsborough County parks has been spared. And regional parks won't shut down for part of the week after all.

But it will cost people who make use of them.

Hillsborough commissioners tentatively spared county regional parks and the after-school program from the budget ax Thursday, agreeing in concept to impose new fees or increase existing ones to pay for them.

"Good work," County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said to county officials who crafted the resolution. "Our parks and trails greatly improve the quality of life of our residents."

After months of discussion and public outcry, the board finally got to the nitty-gritty of making some decisions in a tough budget year. The commission is looking for ways to fill a hole of more than $140 million in its budget caused by falling property tax collections.

County Administrator Pat Bean has proposed sharp cuts in everything from code enforcement to the morgue to bridge the gap. Until now, commissioners have tussled over relatively small-ticket items.

Among their decisions Thursday, commissioners agreed to spare a program that helps people who are victims of crime, though they voted to cut its budget 10 percent. They still haven't decided how to pay for it, though Commissioner Kevin Beckner proposed increasing fees charged to suspects booked into county jails.

That proposal would have to win support from Sheriff David Gee, whose deputies run the jail. Gee was not at Thursday's workshop to offer his opinion, and Beckner hasn't talked to him yet.

"Law-abiding citizens should not have to bear the costs for these programs," Beckner said. "The perpetrators and criminals who generate the demand for these programs should pay the costs."

Commissioners also rescued a trio of employees who serve as liaisons to Hillsborough's Asian, Hispanic and African-American residents, staffers Bean had proposed making part-time employees. They also limited cutbacks at the county's law library, which provides free legal texts to the poor as well as some judges and smaller law firms.

Several decisions still must be made. Among them, the fate of consumer protection, which investigates complaints ranging from fraud to unlicensed contracting. It has been targeted for elimination, along with a major cut to the county's agricultural extension office.

Beckner's inmate fee proposal would help pay for consumer protection as well as victim's assistance.

Another workshop is scheduled for Aug. 20.

In another significant development, the board signaled it may lop all or part of a benefit paid to county employees that can be used to offset the cost of employee health insurance premiums.

That won't be popular with county employees already facing layoffs and pay cuts, but it represents a $13.2 million chunk of cash for a benefit that is rare in the private sector. Some commissioners said its a perk they have a hard time rationalizing in lean times, though at least one expressed concern about whether getting rid of it would unduly harm lower-paid workers.

But the parks votes, both unanimous, are likely draw the most attention from the community, which rallied in support.

Under the tentative plan, families would be charged up to $48 weekly for the after-school program, more than doubling the maximum fee of up to $20 enacted just last year to save the program. (Families are charged on a sliding scale based on income.)

The difference this year is that parks officials expect most children — about 93 percent — to qualify for a federal voucher program that will defray all or part of the cost. Parks director Mark Thornton said he hopes that presents a long-term solution for keeping the program intact.

"We don't want to be here next year on this item," he said.

Thornton also outlined a host of new or increased fees for using the county's 14 regional parks, from Flatwoods to E.G. Simmons. They would include a tentative $2-per-car entry fee, a $5 boat ramp fee and a doubling of campsite fees to $24. Annual passes would be made available for park entry at $50 a person or $100 per family.

The fees, plus staff cutbacks, should enable those parks to stay open seven days a week. Bean had proposed closing the parks two days a week in 2010 and four days a week in 2011.

Members of various recreation groups, ranging from bikers to paddlers, had turned out during early public hearings offering support of a fee structure. Many also offered to provide volunteers for park chores.

"The public has placed a very high value in these regional parks," Thornton said after the meeting.

The commission still must formally vote in order to enact or change any fees.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Parks, after-school program spared budget ax by Hillsborough Commissioners 08/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 14, 2009 12:45am]

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