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Here's why that $20 parks user fee makes sense

The cost of heading a volley pass the keeper, lining a fastball back through the box, or hitting pay dirt on a quarterback keeper is indicative of the changing culture in Hernando County government.

Amid the post-Amendment 1 budget crunching comes the idea of charging sports league participants a fee to help maintain the county-owned fields. The user fee has the potential to generate up to $130,000 to offset nearly $670,000 for maintaining the sports fields.

But league representatives roundly criticized the proposed $20-per-person surcharge at a town hall meeting last month in Brooksville. A followup survey showed mixed results with some people willing to pay the fee, but others advocating another option, namely augmenting government-paid maintenance with league volunteers.

Good luck.

This comes from my own experience as soccer dad and Little League coach in another county. Getting more than a minimal number of people to volunteer will be difficult. In some places, parents gladly pay a $20-per-player fee just to get out of two hours of concession stand duty.

And if you do give up your time, part of your payback is usually criticism of your umpiring skills, coaching abilities or speed of your concession work from the non-volunteers.

Now, you're supposed to clean the bathrooms, too?

The economics of youth sports can be difficult. Travel teams carry a several hundred-dollar price tag each year, plus multiple tanks of gasoline and the possibility of motel stays by season's end. That's not counting fundraising and soliciting other sponsorships to offset the price of tournaments and other ancillary costs.

Still, the fields must be maintained and other options aren't particularly appealing. In New Tampa, for instance, the Little League passes around a coffee can for field maintenance donations while volunteers drag the infield between games. Toss in $1 for each game and you're out the 20 bucks by season's end, anyway.

Assessing a $20 user fee is an effective way to maintain safe, quality playing fields. That would be my recommendation to commissioners. Which brings us to how this relatively small item in a proposed $119-million general fund budget comes to exemplify changing county government.

The staff's research, to be presented to the Hernando County Commission later this month, came with no formal recommendation of the best option.

County Administrator David Hamilton blocked that punt. He kicked the report back to Parks and Recreation Director Pat Fagan. The staff, Hamilton said, must assume the responsibility to do analysis and background work, present options and then recommend action, respecting the board's absolute right to approve or reject it in favor of another option.

It's called leadership.

It requires a change in staff attitude, Hamilton acknowledged, from the mushy, what-do-you-want-us-to-do? line of thinking.

"That's why things fall through the cracks; why things don't get done,'' Hamilton said.

Hamilton has been on the job nearly six months, and changing the way Hernando County government operates will be an evolving process. This month commissioners will pass judgment on his first budget proposal. The ball fields, he admits, are important, but not the only issue worthy of public dialogue.

Long-term capital investing, transportation corridors, public transit, shared services with constitutional officers, economic development and a reorganized county staff are all in the mix.

My own thinking is that Hernando County residents must be willing to accept their support for the increased property tax exemptions in Amendment 1 that spurred a more than 7.5 percent reduction, or $7-million, in county revenue. Core services will remain the same. But the resulting cuts include reduced library services, less code enforcement and higher bus fares, and it should be result in acceptance of park user fees.

Voters said they want governments to make do with less and now comes the dialogue about what can be done with less. To the point, Hamilton, in discussing potential capital projects, summed it up best.

"We have to be much more cautious where we invest,'' he said, "We can't do everything we want.''

Reach C.T. Bowen at or 1-800-333-7505 ext. 6239.

Here's why that $20 parks user fee makes sense 09/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 10:18am]
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