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Pinellas proposals: $5 Fort De Soto admission, weekly park closures

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday reduced a proposed admission fee to Fort De Soto Park from $8 to $5 per car, and backed a $3 fee to enter regional parks.

But County Administrator Bob LaSala had bad news for anyone hoping the new fees would allow the county to keep all parks open.

His proposed 2011 budget, which will be released in July, will call for all regional parks to be closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays to cut costs.

"I don't want to have this going any further and have the board say, 'Hey, you didn't tell us about that,' " LaSala said during a commission workshop.

Parks advocates and residents had expected new fees to keep parks open. In fact, a presentation slide said, "Revenue may help sustain service levels in the parks and preserves system."

Instead, closures loom at 13 parks such as John Chesnut, Lake Seminole, the recently opened Eagle Lake Park, and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. Officials there oppose an admission fee, but the county's proposal currently calls for a $3 fee to go the park's beaches.

The commission also moved forward a $75 annual pass to enter parks. A discount for low-income people also is planned.

The fees, which still must be formally approved, have angered residents used to free visits to Fort De Soto, which attracts roughly 2.7 million visitors a year.

"It's aggravating," said Mitch McConnell, 54, of Tierra Verde, who visits the south county park three times a week.

Though he will probably buy an annual pass, he accused the county of frittering away the money it received in the real estate boom.

"It doesn't make sense to say you can't go into park on certain days," he said.

While the majority of the commission called the fees fair, Commissioner Calvin Harris and Commissioner Neil Brickfield opposed them. No formal vote was taken.

"I think in this environment, there's a lot of people whose lone entertainment is going to the park," Harris said.

The board did reject LaSala's attempt to avoid earmarking the fee revenue to be used only on parks. A majority said they wouldn't support fees without such a promise, fearing backlash.

"What are we saving by doing this?" Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel asked.

The county predicts a $40 million deficit each of the next two years, prompting the cuts.

The parks and recreation system, which has a $12.8 million budget this year, faces even deeper cuts because LaSala doesn't consider them mandatory services like public safety or road repairs.

However, he also proposed $12 million in projects that are supposed to pay off with savings in the long run, like $8.5 million for a water chiller plant for Clearwater offices. Unlike the parks budget, officials say money will come from nonrecurring revenue.

"There's a return on investment on one, and no return on investment on the other," LaSala said.

But Harris said that one-time pot of money keeps showing up annually, leading to complaints from other agencies. "It looks like we're making them fund our pet projects," Harris said.

The county estimated $3.5 million would be raised from the new park fees, though that assumed an $8 fee at Fort De Soto.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas proposals: $5 Fort De Soto admission, weekly park closures 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 11:11pm]
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