The Hernando Commission is solidifying its position on county parks' sports teams — punter. For the second time in four months, commissioners declined to charge fees to maintain county baseball diamonds, soccer pitches and football fields. The reluctance comes even though commissioners approved the assessments in August as part of the 2011 budget. Instead, days after the fiscal year started, commissioners delayed the fees and kicked the matter back to staffers for a huddle with youth sport leagues.
The result was presented five days ago — a modified charge that billed sports teams $20 per-athlete instead of an hourly rental rate. A past commission rejected the $20 individual fee in 2008, but this time some youth sports leagues acquiesced to the cost instead of fighting it.
The buy-in mattered little to a commission intent on a game of dodgeball. Commissioner David Russell resurrected the ill-conceived idea of raiding the environmental land acquisition program to finance park maintenance. To complicate his proposal, Russell added a new twist of taking the concept to voters in 2012 and then using stormwater management money to repay the environmental land fund if voters reject his plan. It's a convoluted way to rationalize using money for purposes other than what voters originally intended.
Worse, a blustering Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he wants a list of parks to close instead of implementing the fees approved before he took office in November. It's short-sighted and fails to acknowledge that closing underutilized parks in remote locations will not offset the expense of maintaining large athletic complexes enjoyed by thousands of children. As proposed, the fees were expected to generate just under $230,000, or roughly 10 percent of the maintenance tab at the county's 25 parks.
A commission concerned about the financial burden on families — a legitimate consideration in light of the county's high unemployment rate — would better serve their constituents by tweaking the costs. For instance, there was no discussion of a previous suggestion from Commissioner Jim Adkins to mirror a Pasco County plan that discounts fees for children qualifying for free or reduced price lunches in school. Similarly, the commission should consider a cap on fees for families and individual children — perhaps no more than $40 per child, effectively allowing youngsters to play more than two sports without an additional expense. Record-keeping shouldn't be too difficult considering the Hernando Youth League acts as an umbrella organization for nearly all the youth sports leagues in the county.
On the dais, only Commissioner Jeff Stabins displayed an understanding of what's at stake. Taxpayers, he noted, invested upward of $60 million in county parks, and it is incumbent upon the commission to ensure that investment is protected and maintained. From the audience, George Angeliadis of the First Hernando Youth Soccer Club made note of the societal impact of closing parks.
"Twenty dollars to keep kids playing soccer and off the streets and out of trouble, that's a good tradeoff,'' he told commissioners.
Indeed. Those who play on the county's athletic fields are now willing to pay a greater share of the maintenance expense. Why is it that commissioners keep fumbling that concept?