People heading to Fort De Soto Park for a day of sea and sun won't have to worry about whether they have $5 in their pocket, now that Pinellas County commissioners have found a way to avoid new parking fees for large county parks. Though it may be only a yearlong reprieve, it is still great news for residents trying to stretch their personal finances as they seek inexpensive entertainment.
Faced with a $900,000 gap in the parks budget, County Administrator Bob LaSala had given county commissioners two options: Close parks two days a week or institute a $5 parking fee at Fort De Soto and a $3 fee at the other regional county parks. Commissioners declined both options and chose to use $900,000 from reserves to keep all parks open without new fees.
"There are a lot of paid attractions in Pinellas County, but the parks system should not be one of those. We ought to strive to make that an amenity for everyone," said Commissioner Calvin Harris, who led the effort to shelve the fee proposal.
Commissioner Susan Latvala argued the other side, noting that conditions are deteriorating in parks. She said the proposed parking fees were "nominal" and the cash was needed to maintain the parks.
"Yes, it's very painful," she said, "but at some point we have to figure out how we're going to sustain the assets people care about."
Maintaining assets like parks and public buildings gets more difficult every year. The county parks department has been decimated by budget cuts during the last three years, losing 58 percent of its staff and now dependent on volunteers for many park maintenance tasks. The new parking fees would have generated more than $2 million a year, but a majority of commissioners wanted to keep the county's best parks accessible for now to those on tight budgets.
LaSala had warned commissioners that with property values still falling, his projection of a 5 percent drop in property tax revenue for the 2011-2012 budget year is likely too low and deficits will worsen. The county's $20 million "service level stabilization fund" was intended to offset even deeper budget cuts next year, but commissioners decided Tuesday to spend some now.
However, it was no spending spree. Commissioners chose to restore $120,000 scheduled to be cut from funding for drug addiction treatment programs and to spend $180,000 for social workers to work with the homeless — prudent spending decisions, and sensitive to people's needs in this difficult time.
Commissioners conceded they likely will have to implement parking fees in parks next year, but the delay gives the staff time to figure out how to reduce the cost of operating a parking program, estimated at an eye-catching $660,000 a year. And it gives Pinellas residents and visitors one more year of free and easy access to one of the best park systems in the nation.