Hillsborough County's plan to consolidate parks and recreation programs is not the disaster that some parents are making it out to be. The proposal, which goes before commissioners today, would give children access to quality, affordable care while still helping the county's bottom line.
County Administrator Mike Merrill has proposed merging after-school programs at the county's 42 parks to 11 regional centers. The move would enable the county to cut in half its full- and part-time work force of 185, saving $7.5 million toward the $50 million the county hopes to shave this year from operations.
These are substantial savings from an enterprise that has not been sustainable for years. The county's costs are four to five times what it collects in fees. Its programs are staffed for 4,000 participants, even though those numbers have steadily declined to about 1,800. Commissioners recognized the problem nearly four years ago and have warned repeatedly that changes were coming. Merrill deserves credit for confronting a hot-button issue that his predecessor chose to duck.
Hillsborough would hardly be cutting off needy children. In addition to providing services at the regional centers, a nonprofit would fund $2 million in grants so low-income families could send their children to programs offered by the public schools and local nonprofits. The county would still keep open its 42 parks and staff them as needed for community groups. It also would pour money saved into the most popular programs, including those serving at-risk teens. And the county would still operate summer camps. This solution is better than having parents who cannot afford it forced to pay full freight.
Free or subsidized after-school care may have been doable before the recession. But four consecutive years of declining tax revenue have left the board with few easy choices. Merrill at least showed the right priority by looking to cut overhead instead of care itself. Hillsborough's school district has extra capacity at the programs it operates at 135 elementary and middle schools. Commissioners should recognize Merrill's proposal as a good-faith effort to help needy children with what resources are on the table. It certainly is better than kicking the problem down the road.