Pinellas County wants to use your wallet to help balance its budget

CLEARWATER — Going to the beach, getting Fido licensed and even scattering Aunt Sue's ashes at sea likely will get more expensive in Pinellas County.

County commissioners are eyeing several new and increased fees as a way to pump more than $5 million into next year's ailing budget. County leaders have signaled they will approve at least some of the fees to help offset an $85 million deficit.

The bulk of the fee revenue — $3.3 million — would come from parks, most notably admission fees to the popular beaches at Fort De Soto Park and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. Waterfront camping would cost $1 more, too.

The county would charge $3 to $5 per car and $1 per biker or pedestrian at Fort De Soto. It would cost $5 per car to go into Fred Howard.

The cost of a permit for cremation, dissection or burial at sea would go up to $40 from $35, raising $40,000 annually. Pet licensing would double to $20, generating $740,000 a year.

The county also would raise fees for building permits and reviews, raising another $2 million.

The increased fees on services and camping would take effect Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins. But it could take nine months to a year for residents to see the entrance fees at Fred Howard and Fort De Soto because the county needs time to set up collection points, said chief county administrator Mark Woodard.

Parks and environmental advocates have urged the county to use the new fees to fend off deep cuts at county parks and preserves.

"If you're going to charge entry into any of the parks, they're going to have to maintain the level of service there now in order to justify it," said Lorraine Margeson, a St. Petersburg environmentalist who met with county commissioners to lobby for money for parks and preserves.

County officials dropped a proposal to cut lifeguards at Fort De Soto and other parks. But night-shift rangers at Fort De Soto's campgrounds and beach would be eliminated. The county also would pare its enforcement teams and environmental scientists in preserves.

Commissioners such as Nancy Bostock say they want to make sure fees are increased in the right places to be the most cost effective — and not deter visitors to hot spots like Fort De Soto.

Robert Wilson, 70, of Tarpon Springs, said he visits Fred Howard several times a month.

"I don't know if a $5 or $10 fee would cut back on visitors, but it might," said Wilson, whose wife does photography there. He said the new fees are "a lot to some families."

Even with spending cuts and the expected new revenue for 2010, the budget has an estimated deficit of up to $7.8 million.

Serious debate also is looming.

The shortfall has triggered sparring with Sheriff Jim Coats, who offered a 16 percent reduction to his department's budget.

The county has pressed him to make a 20 percent reduction to close a gap this summer and to help pay for a $15 million reserve fund to cover expected shortfalls a year from now.

Coats and his chief deputy, Bob Gualtieri, said they believe county officials exaggerated the deficit, which they believe to be closer to $2.5 million than the nearly $8 million reported.

Any additional reduction in his department would raise risks to the community, Coats said, though he avoided the "littered with human carnage" rhetoric that punctuated a budget fight last year. The crime rate for 2008 increased 9.5 percent in unincorporated Pinellas.

For now, the proposed budget includes no tax rate increase.

But Commissioner Ken Welch said he hasn't ruled out a tax increase, though other commissioners have rejected the idea.

"That is the worst possible option in front of us," Bostock said. "People are being hit pretty hard in the pocketbook."

Given cuts to hospitals and homeless care, plus the potential deeper gash to Coats' agency, a small millage rate hike could be in order, Welch said. The recession has crimped finances beyond the tax cuts mandated by the Legislature and voters, he said.

"I think I certainly could make the argument to concerned citizens. Do you want to remove the safety net for our hospitals? ... Do you want to remove the funding for homeless services?"

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

fast facts

Fees on the rise?

Some of the proposed new or increased fees in the Pinellas County budget include:

Fort De Soto Park:

$3 to $5 per car, $1 per biker or pedestrian

Fred Howard Park:

$5 per car

Waterfront camping:

$1 increase

Permits for cremation or burial at sea:

Up $5 to $40

Pet licensing:

Doubling to $20

Pinellas County wants to use your wallet to help balance its budget 07/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 12:41am]

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