Hernando County has a new marketing strategy to attract visitors to its parks: Welcome scofflaws. Commissioners want you to pay to use county parks. At least that was the theory in May when the board voted to install parking meters to help offset proposed budget cuts in the parks and recreation department. But, Tuesday a new commission majority decided it didn't want to force the public to contribute.
Putting money in the meter is now voluntary. The illogical strategy is the fallout of the board's 3-2 vote rejecting an ordinance to enforce its parking rules at county boat launches and at Rogers, Pine Island and Rotary Centennial Dog parks. The meters will remain as will the pay stations at the boat ramps, but the county won't issue citations to those who choose not to fork over the fees that range for $1 for dog walkers to $5 for boat launchers.
Voting against the ordinance were Jim Adkins, newly elected Wayne Dukes and Chairman John Druzbick. Their unstated, but goofy message to the public? Tough luck for people who abide by the rules.
Their action is irresponsible. It's akin to telling property owners their tax payments are now voluntary, too. The approximately 180 boaters who paid the $50 annual fee to launch at Hernando Beach, Bayport and Jenkins Creek and the more than 60 pet owners who've obtained the $30 yearly permit for the dog park rightfully could demand refunds. So far, the county has sold more than $12,000 worth of annual park permits.
That income was expected as part of the current budget when the commission agreed to a series of park fees to help make ends meet. The original projection called for $678,000 in user fees for parking at waterfront parks, launching boats, visiting the dog park, and hourly charges for leagues renting athletic fields.
Since, board members whittled the cost for annual permits, retreated on the athletic field assessments after youth leagues objected and now they've declined to enforce the parking fees.
Ticket-writers weren't expected to be prolific. The $40 civil penalty for parking violations was expected to bring in just $2,500, or the equivalent of fewer than 65 parking citations annually. Instead, the board now has jumbled its parks budget less than three months into its fiscal year while failing to acknowledge the county already projects a $7 million deficit for the 2011-2012 budget.
There are questions this short-sighted board majority should be willing to answer for their constituents. How much money was spent buying meters, the use of which won't be enforced? How big is the newly created budget deficit in the parks department and how will the commission close it?
Prior to the vote, Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who found himself in the minority with Commissioner David Russell, said constituents already had e-mailed wondering why the parking meters weren't being enforced.
"It isn't fair to those who are stepping up and paying their fair share,'' Stabins said.
Indeed. But fairness never became a consideration for Dukes, Adkins and Druzbick.