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Hildebrand missing opportunity to save public pools

The raised bronze letters on the black background are ignored daily. A bunch of names and a date that mean little to the passers-by.

The year listed is 1990. No month or day of the week is specified, but the plaque, in a gymnasium lobby in Hudson, commemorates the Aug. 4, 1990, grand opening of the Fivay Recreation Complex that was later rechristened as War Veterans' Memorial Park.

The names include an architect, a government administrator and five county commissioners: Sylvia Young, Curtis Law, Ann Hildebrand, Allan G. Safranek Jr. and Mike Wells.

They are people who had political courage. Four years earlier, they asked the voters for new property taxes to pay for two bond issues totaling $23 million to build parks and libraries. They didn't just ask. They cajoled and persuaded. Wells and Hildebrand, in particular, spared no civic group. They even voted to spend thousands of dollars in public money to educate the electorate.

Nowadays, political courage gets confused with: Ducking when the word "tax'' gets mentioned, pandering to a boisterous audience or acting sympathetic while cutting services. It is unfortunate because the payoff for true leadership can be a legacy of a better community.

When the polls closed Election Day 1986, more than 50,000 people, 57.5 percent of the turnout, voted for the parks referendum. The library referendum received better than 54 percent of the "yes'' vote.

It was a big year for referendums. Floridians approved the lottery, but Pasco residents turned down a tax district for fire service in Land O'Lakes and rejected the idea of having an appointed, instead of an elected, school superintendent. But the quality-of-life issues had prevailed and a multiyear building program followed that brought new parks, recreation centers and youth athletic complexes from Zephyrhills to Holiday.

Eleven days ago, Pasco County revealed a proposal to close the two swimming pools, financed by the 1986 bond proceeds, at Veterans Memorial Park and at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Center. The proposal is intended to save $289,000 in annual operating subsidies, the cost of future repairs and to stave off cuts elsewhere in the parks system.

Most of those former county commissioners wonder what happened.

"It's a heart-breaker, I don't know how else to say it,'' said Young who turns 73 on Monday. "That was one of my promises to the kids that we'd have parks. That was my dream. It's really sad to me. It's a way of life to be able to have a place to go swimming during summer time.''

Safranek, 64, runs Richey Realty in West Pasco and he mirrored Young's description of "heart-breaking.''

"People then were hungry for parks. The timing was right,'' said Safranek, who lost a bid for a third term on the commission just three months after the Fivay Recreation Center opened.

The amenities, he said, helped the real estate and building industries because they made the county a much more attractive place to live. Communities are rated by what the provide to residents, Safranek said, and the parks and libraries serve Pasco County well.

Law, 75, was the dean of the commission then, serving 16 years before his electoral loss in 1990. His wisdom usually brought three votes because fellow Democrats Safranek and Young often followed his lead. Law is familiar with the benefits of youth sports. He served as the first president of the Land O'Lakes Little League and still gets to the recreation center diamonds to watch his two grandsons play baseball.

"You build something like that, to me, it's out of character if you don't use them. I think they have a value to the community which goes beyond just what you're looking at.

''If you take the kids off the street, it's going to help them become good citizens. If you take that away from kids then you hurt the end result. I think youth sports have a real value to the community. I think it's a mistake to close the pool.''

The acknowledged leader of the drive for parks and libraries was Wells, also a youth sports advocate, who pushed the referendum after joining the commission in 1984. He served two terms on the board and now is in his 15th year as property appraiser.

As was his custom while a commissioner, he was the most outspoken during a recent interview.

"Closing or doing any more cuts to parks and libraries, in my view, is irresponsible.

"I've never spoken out against what the county commission does. They've got a tough job, but this has got to stop. This simply has to stop. They've got to get their priorities straight. Taxpayers have paid for these parks, libraries and swimming pools, they're entitled to them.''

The four former commissioners all have something else in common. They have no final say in the outcome. But, one of the names on that plaque does — Hildebrand.

She is in her seventh, four-year term on the commission and is in a position to have opened and closed the county's public swimming pools. Can they remain open?

"I don't know. At this point, I'm just waiting to see where we come out (financially),'' she said.

The lack of conviction is disappointing. A little of that political courage from 1986 is what swimming enthusiasts need.

C.T. Bowen can be reached at bowen@sptimes.com or 727-869-6239

Hildebrand missing opportunity to save public pools 06/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 11:06pm]

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