Hernando Commissioner Wayne Dukes won't ask people to pay more to maintain their county ballfields. He'd rather close the parks. It is a ridiculous, narrow-minded position that could cost 1,200 kids a place to play baseball and football and participate in cheerleading. It would leave the business community without an occasional and welcome financial shot-in-the-arm from tournaments drawing out-of-town visitors to Hernando's motels, restaurants and gas stations.
This week, during discussions on filling a $6.7 million gap in the county government's general fund for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Dukes and other commissioners heard from the public on a plan to close Ernie Weaver Youth Park and other cost-cutting measures. Nobody favored it. So, Dukes offered the room filled with children/athletes and their parents/coaches disingenuous lip service about working to keep the fields at Ernie Weaver Youth Park open if the community absorbs more responsibility.
He kept talking about community participation. However, Dukes said, that shouldn't be confused with a community participating by paying user fees even if the sports leagues are agreeable. What nonsense. Some parents are willing to open their wallets, but the commissioner closes his mind. It even contradicts Dukes' own suggestion earlier this month that the county explore charging a vehicle parking fee for bicyclists using the Suncoast Trail.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins correctly called out Dukes, noting a prior board — with acquiescence from the sports leagues — approved fees to raise $230,000 annually, only to have the plan disintegrate in January when Dukes refused to go along.
Stabins was right to be frustrated. He suggested the commission instruct the staff to identify new revenue sources instead of simply cutting programs and closing facilities. His call went unheeded. It is unfortunate. Earlier this month, we urged the commission and staff to be creative in its leadership in attempting to maintain services while balancing the county budget. It doesn't take much creativity to padlock the gate.
One suggestion from Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek is for the commission to consider using the rollback rate — the tax rate that raises the same amount of money as the current budget. For the coming year, that will be about a half-mill higher than the 2011 tax rate because of falling property values. Data from Mazourek indicated the rollback would not increase tax payments for 70 percent of the property owners in the county.
Still, Commissioner David Russell was adamant that Mazourek was calling for a tax increase. If only there was as much concern about services as there was about semantics.