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Today's kids shouldn't have to pay user fees to play ball

One of my all-time favorite books, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, describes an era when this country, fresh off winning World War II, embarked on another huge communal effort: providing great childhoods for all its little baby boomers.

Schools were brick fortresses, baseball uniforms were embroidered flannel and Little League fields had stands, press boxes and actual dugouts.

"When you ran up those three sagging steps and out onto the field, you could seriously imagine that you were in Yankee Stadium,'' wrote author Bill Bryson.

"Superior infrastructure makes for richer fantasies, believe me."

I bring this up not to complain about the parks in Hernando County, which are pretty good, but to point out that most adult taxpayers in this county grew up in a time when, I bet, their families didn't have to pay extra to play on a public ball field.

Not only pay, in Hernando's case, but pay a lot.

Pasco County has new fees, too — $10 per child for each season of play in a recreational league, $5 for children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Citrus County, even in the face of falling tax revenue, charges nothing at all.

Helen Keith, secretary of the Spring Hill Dixie League, said she figures the new fees in Hernando — $10 per hour, per field, $15 per hour at night — will cost players $44 each for the spring season. For families with multiple children playing multiple seasons, it will add up fast.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Rose Rocco called this an "unintended consequence'' of the County Commission's approval of a wide range of park user fees; these are expected to raise $584,000 needed to balance the Parks and Recreation department budget.

Since the Commission clearly meant to approve the new fees, the only consequence it didn't intend was the backlash: the phone calls and e-mails from angry parents and grandparents, the crowd of them that showed up at Tuesday's meeting.

Not that I think the commissioners' decision on Tuesday to reconsider the fees next month was strictly political. They had young children once. They understand the value of kids' sports.

My problem was with their approach. As both Rocco and Commissioner Jim Adkins said: "We need to get creative.''

Creative, I guess, loosely describes the proposals from commissioners Jeff Stabins and David Russell.

Stabins suggested covering the cost of parks fees with a voluntary tax. I checked in the next day to see how much support he'd gathered for this idea. The shocking answer: almost none.

Russell's new idea is a retread: tap into future contributions for the county's environmentally sensitive lands funds.

If you want to hear him rationalize why this is acceptable, you can tune in to next week's meeting. But considering this fund is 22 years old, it's no surprise nothing has changed in the two months since he first put this plan forward. Voters approved this small property tax specifically to pay for natural land; only voters can okay another use.

I guess, now that the budget has been set and the fiscal year begun, the Commission has no choice but to get creative.

But just as if an ordinary person is presented with a bill and "gets creative,'' this will eventually lead to trouble. In the long term, what the commission needs isn't creativity but guts.

I mean it in the most respectful and least incriminating way possible when I say that commissioners are like burglars: they stay away from houses guarded by big dogs.

County employees such as Parks and Recreation director Pat Fagan serve at the pleasure of the board. It's no surprise they tend to roll over during budget season. It's also no surprise that the budgets of independently elected constitutional officers, especially Sheriff Richard Nugent, have fared far better in recent years.

They're big dogs, but the biggest of all is the contingent of snarling voters who refuse to pay extra taxes.

The commission was so leery of them that it didn't even consider a slight increase in property tax rates that would have still left a slight reduction in revenues.

Strangely, a lot of the most rabidly anti-tax voters grew up in the generous era Bryson describes. According to a CNN poll last spring, nearly half of Tea Party members are baby boomers.

Maybe in some future, non-election year, the Commission can persuade them to do for young people what their elders did for them.

Today's kids shouldn't have to pay user fees to play ball 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 8:30pm]
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