Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: County should move with care on East Lake recreation tax

For 30 years, the private nonprofit East Lake Youth Sports Association has been the only provider of large-scale, organized recreation for kids in the swath of unincorporated northeast Pinellas County known as East Lake. County government's policy to provide parks but not recreation programming seemed satisfactory to East Lake residents, who in three different referendums turned down the option of taxing themselves for recreation services. But now ELYSA's leaders are asking county commissioners to levy a tax on East Lake residents to pay for the sports complex's operations and expansion.

While commissioners have authority to do so without a referendum, they should not move forward until they have a more thorough accounting of ELYSA's finances and also can assure taxpayers that a group with a 30-year history of private operations is ready to transition to a transparent public agency.

ELYSA previously received help from taxpayers for infrastructure, but not through a direct levy on East Lake residents. The county gave the group 27 acres off Old Keystone Road for the East Lake Youth Sports Complex, which has six baseball fields, two football fields, three soccer fields, concessions, restrooms and parking. The county also has provided grants: almost $1 million between 2000 and 2010.

East Lake's population has trended younger, so ELYSA, bursting at the seams, looked for a place to expand but had no luck until Pinellas County purchased the 871-acre Eldridge-Wilde well field and dedicated 100 acres of it across the street from ELYSA's complex to future recreational use. On six leased acres there, ELYSA now operates two soccer fields built with about $1 million from the county.

Under ELYSA's new request, property owners in the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District would pay a quarter-mill — 25 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value — for ELYSA's operations and expansion. Officials estimate the tax would raise around $575,000 a year to cover annual operating costs of $300,000 and to start addressing $1.3 million worth of capital projects, including lights and irrigation, a lacrosse field, more concession stands and restrooms. An executive director also would be hired.

East Lake has a population of more than 30,000 and many more children than it did decades ago. The need for organized recreation is apparent. A structure already exists for administering such a tax. West of Lake Tarpon, residents of unincorporated Palm Harbor have paid a quarter-mill tax for recreation and a quarter-mill for library services since 1985. Oversight is by the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency board, which has four County Commission appointees and one rep from each department it oversees: the Palm Harbor Library, the Palm Harbor Recreation Department and the East Lake Community Library. ELYSA leaders have proposed becoming the fourth department it oversees.

But no other agency program had a lengthy history as a private nonprofit before going public, which could lead to some transition problems. County commissioners have had difficulty getting a thorough pro forma budget from the group's leaders, who are volunteers. Before commissioners vote on a tax levy, they should spell out the transparency and public records requirements under which ELYSA will have to operate as well as how ELYSA's financial records will be maintained. They should also require assurances that ELYSA's programs will seek to serve all East Lake children, even those who may need some financial subsidy. A publicly financed operation must come with an obligation to public service and public scrutiny, too.

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