In the aftermath of state-ordered spending caps on local governments and voter-approval of property tax cuts, Pasco County will have a new motto: Pay to play. ¶ That is the expected and not unreasonable outcome when commissioners convene today to consider new fees for public use of county parks.
Reduced services and/or higher fees were a foregone conclusion after voters approved Amendment 1, which doubled the $25,000 homestead exemption on the portion of assessments used to finance county government operations. The challenge for commissioners is to balance the competing interests and spread the burden fairly in anticipation of a $16-million revenue loss come Oct. 1.
Pasco's mass transit system already raised fares and delayed route improvements, and the county is considering cuts in its library operations. Now comes the parks department. Toward that end, commissioners have little alternative but to approve a schedule of about 60 new or higher fees for public use of its popular parks system.
It will result in parents paying more for summer day camps — still a bargain compared with private sector competitors — for swimming lessons and for a daily dip in a county pool. Organized sports leagues will charge more per team; families will pay more to camp; boaters will face a new charge to park their boat trailers, and even dropping by the gym to shoot baskets will carry an annual assessment. The fees are expected to generate $400,000 annually to offset operating and maintenance costs in the park system.
The largest jump is the cost of the popular summer day camps held at the recreation complexes. The weekly fee will increase from $30 to $50. The county also is adding a recreation identification card for people to use the gymnasiums in Holiday, Hudson and Land O'Lakes. Annual cost is $5 for county residents and $15 for people living outside Pasco. Another notable change is a $5-a-day fee to launch boats and to park trailers at the Anclote River Park in Holiday.
The new fees might be hard to swallow for some property owners, but they are not unrealistic. Charging user fees allows the county to assess costs to the people who actually use the parks.
The county hasn't tinkered with its park prices in roughly 15 years. In the mid 1990s, the county adopted fees and reduced services because of its proximity to the maximum tax rate allowed by the state Constitution. The changes included a greater reliance on volunteers to help manage the parks, charging youth sports leagues for the electricity to turn on the lights at night and raising the price for summer camp. However, the county discarded a plan to charge for boat launches after a public uproar.
This time the county is wise to devise user fees that collect money from those who can most afford to pay it. Boat owners, by definition, have discretionary cash available and should be asked to pay to use the county ramp on the Anclote River.
Asking the public to pay for services that used to be gratis is a fundamental change in local governing. But the goal is the same. A memorandum to commissioners spells out the parks department's philosophy "to improve the quality of life for Pasco County citizens by providing excellence in parks and recreation facilities, programs and services. The goal is to provide something for everyone in the most efficient ways possible.''
Indeed. The high-quality parks will remain. Embracing new fees is more palatable than cutting maintenance and operations.