The Dunedin city staff continues its outstanding track record of finding sources of money other than tax dollars to help pay for new public amenities. Ironically, their success is making it harder for Dunedin city commissioners to say no to projects that are nice, but not essential.
Commissioners grappled with that issue Thursday night. The item on the agenda was to award a contract for $350,000 to Aquamarine Swimming Pool Co. of Clearwater to build a sprayground, sometimes known as a splash pad, in Highlander Park.
A sprayground is a large concrete pad with vertical and in-ground structures that spray water. Children run around through the spray. The depth of the water ranges from zero to a few inches. In North Pinellas, Oldsmar is known for its sprayground, which attracts families in droves during warm weather. Dunedin's proposed sprayground would be twice the size of Oldsmar's — more than 3,000 square feet — with more than twice as many spray structures.
The jam-packed Oldsmar facility is a testament to the popularity of spraygrounds. Even Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito takes his children to the Oldsmar sprayground.
But Dunedin, like most local governments in Florida, faces a serious revenue problem this year. Property values have fallen, so less property tax will be collected. Penny for Pinellas sales tax collections are projected to be less than expected. Other revenue streams used by local governments — impact fees, building permit fees, franchise fees, utility taxes, among others — all are down. The full impacts of voter-approved Amendment 1 are kicking in. Dunedin, like other cities, has been forced to cut back.
The question hovering in the air at Thursday's City Commission meeting was this: In this economic environment, should Dunedin spend money on a sprayground for kids?
Several factors made it tough for commissioners to reject the project out of hand. In 2007 the city won a $200,000 grant from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program to build a water playground and picnic facilities in Highlander Park. To get that "free" money, the city has to match it with $200,000 in local funds. The city also has to complete the project before April 2010.
The Kiwanis Club of Dunedin agreed to donate $50,000 toward the city's match in exchange for naming rights for the facility. That meant the city could get a $350,000 sprayground by paying only $100,000. (The city's remaining $50,000 local match must be spent on picnic shelters and other support facilities in the park under the terms of the state grant.)
Commissioners faced a tough decision. Should they give up the grant to save the local dollars? Or should they grab the chance to build what will no doubt be an extremely popular public amenity and let other parties bear the majority of the cost?
That three of the commissioners face an election Tuesday only made it a harder call.
Commissioners toyed with the idea of charging admission to the sprayground, but there will be no city staff there to collect it. They briefly considered building a smaller sprayground that would require less city money — until the city manager pointed out that Oldsmar's sprayground is often overcrowded. Commissioner Deborah Kynes mentioned that she had voted for smaller recreational facilities in the past, only to wish later that the city had built them larger. The president of the Dunedin Kiwanis Club, Elinor Fox, got up and warned commissioners that if they built the sprayground too small, they would probably have to enlarge it later at a higher cost.
Commissioner Dave Eggers, who may be the most conservative commissioner when it comes to spending, admitted he had wrestled with the issue. He finally decided to support the sprayground, he said, not just because grant funds are available, but also because it is an opportunity to do something for young children, and because families unable to take vacations or travel outside the area because of the bad economy need family-friendly entertainment close to home.
In the end, the vote was unanimous to build it. Commissioners decided, as they did on purchases of parkland recently, that they should continue to invest in public projects when the price is right.
By late June, just when the summer heat has become really oppressive, the sprayground should be open in Highlander Park, which is off Michigan Boulevard in north Dunedin. To find it, just follow the shouts of joy.
Diane Steinle can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.