Historic Fort De Soto Park is one of Pinellas County's most treasured recreational and educational assets. But even crown jewels can lose their luster when not attended to properly. The harsh economic and political climate is forcing the consideration of charging visitors a $5 per vehicle fee. Public parks should be freely accessible to everyone. But in the absence of political will by the Pinellas County Commission to slightly raise the property tax rate to better fund public parks, the fee is a palatable compromise to preserve the park.
With 1,136 acres, Fort De Soto is the county's largest park, and its mangroves, wetlands, nature trails, campgrounds, historic fortifications and acclaimed beaches attract 2.7 million visitors a year. But visitors have seen a slow and steady decline in the quality of the park's amenities and maintenance. Staffing levels have dwindled from a high of nearly 90 full- and part-time employees in 2007 to a staff of 23 full-time and 15 part-time workers. Volunteers, such as the Friends of Fort De Soto, have helped fill the void, but they can do only so much.
The proposed $5 fee would raise an estimated $1.5 million for the county parks system. It would be assessed on cars — not bikes or pedestrians — and County Administrator Bob LaSala has appropriately proposed a reduced or eliminated fee for low-income families. As the system's largest park with a $3.3 million annual budget, Fort De Soto would be in line as the major beneficiary of the additional revenues. And the most efficient approach to implementing the fee would be for the county to partner with the state to collect it at the Pinellas Bayway tollbooth.
It is never easy to impose a fee on a venue so many people have enjoyed for free for so long. But with county property tax collections expected to fall for the fifth straight year and the commission unwilling to raise the tax rate, such hard decisions are necessary. Sadly, Fort De Soto is joining a long list of many other public parks that charge users. In the end, it remains a small price to pay for the extraordinary resource.