A Hernando Commission majority will take your money to keep the park system open, but only if you don't call it a fee. Commissioners, with Jeff Stabins absent, unanimously endorsed two measures this week to bolster the county's beleaguered parks and recreation department budget: Setting new parking charges and accepting a cash donation.
The county also will allow the Courts of Praise Worship Center to act as caretaker of the Hill N' Dale and Ridge Manor parks, ensuring the community assets remain open to the public. Under a cost-saving scenario unveiled in May, the county planned to padlock the parks' gates.
Instead, the church group will open and close them daily, providing an $8,400 savings to the county. In addition, the county accepted a $4,400 donation to offset operating costs at Hill N' Dale.
That 9-acre park has a picnic pavilion, basketball court, playground and a sports field on Boxwood Street in Brooksville. The community park in Ridge Manor is 41 acres of open space that also includes sports fields, playground, picnic shelters and pavilions.
It marks the third instance of the private sector stepping forward to try to maintain parks that the county had deemed unworthy of further public investment. Earlier, groups agreed to pay for operating/maintenance costs at Ernie Wever Youth Park in Brooksville and at Skewey's Skate Park in Spring Hill.
The public response is commendable, but the commission majority's actions that triggered the financial emergency is not. Commissioners Wayne Dukes, Jim Adkins and John Druzbick killed previously approved sports league fees that had been expected to raise $230,000 annually. It is an absurd contradiction.
Taking a few extra dollars from sports league participants is verboten, but taking $125,000 over five years from the leagues' umbrella group, Hernando Youth League, is not? Either way, Ernie Weaver Park's future is financed by young athletes and their families.
On Tuesday, commissioners also agreed to a new set of parking fees for horseback riders, bicyclists, boaters and swimmers making use of the Suncoast Bike Trail, the Lake Townsen boat ramp or horse trail or the bathing area at Linda Pedersen Park. The fees – $5 for the boat ramp and $3 to park elsewhere – are to be collected via honor boxes and are projected to generate $12,700 annually.
Commissioners – all of them – were wise to acknowledge that user fees are an appropriate way to ensure people who use the parks are helping to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining them. The challenge to a county already expecting additional budget constraints in 2013 is to recognize that boaters, bicyclists and ball players should be treated equally.