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Seaside stroll may cost you

Next time you head out to one of Pasco's coastal parks you may need your wallet.

County leaders are considering charging people $2 per car for parking and an additional $3 for boat launching at Pasco's four gulfside parks to offset maintenance expenses. Commissioners will consider the proposal Tuesday.

The plan, still preliminary, is part of the county's effort to maintain its extensive park and recreation program without significantly raising the property tax rate.

"We have one of the finest park systems in the state. There's a price for maintaining it," County Commission Chairman Ann Hildebrand said. "We do have to have some sort of user fees. I wish that we didn't, but I don't know where alternative funding sources are going to come from."

The parks and recreation department has suggested the county erect unstaffed automatic gates at Pasco's four coastal parks: Hudson Beach; Robert K. Rees Park (formerly Green Key); Anclote River Park; and Anclote Gulf Park. Two of the parks, Hudson Beach and Anclote River Park, have boat launches. The Parks and Recreation Department estimates the fee system would bring in nearly $600,000 a year.

The cost for parking at a coastal park would be $2 per car, or a total of $5 for people using a county boat ramp. The gates the county is considering buying accept coins and bills and give change. People bicycling in or walking in would face no charge.

But the idea of paying to take a stroll along the water on public property worries some park users.

As her husband eased her wheelchair along the Hudson Beach boardwalk, Bernice Strandall shook her head at the news of a possible parking fee.

"That would be dreadful," she said. "This is the only place people have. We come down here 45 minutes, maybe an hour, every day. There are so few things that are left in Florida that are free. This is just a place to get some fresh air. They would take that away from us too, just for a few dollars?"

Commissioners unanimously embraced the concept of parks and recreation user fees during anguished budget deliberations last fall. Faced with a potential tax rate increase approaching 20 percent, the commissioners cut more than $700,000 from the parks and recreation budget. They agreed imposing some user fees would help them avoid even more drastic reductions in service.

Almost as soon as the first batch of fees went into effect, residents complained and the board backed off. The biggest controversy concerned the county's decision to charge groups for reserving park facilities such as meeting rooms.

Those fees were expected to produce roughly $70,000 a year but drew widespread complaints, especially from non-profit groups who said they were too burdensome. The board relaxed those charges, and now that batch of fees is expected to raise roughly $30,000 annually.

The second batch should produce much more, though parks and recreation director Nils Hallberg said he wanted to float the idea to commissioners before he pursued an in-depth analysis.

"I don't want to waste my staff's time, if it's not something the commission wants to do," Hallberg said.

His informal estimates put the start-up costs of erecting the gates at $350,000. Annual maintenance would be roughly $70,000, but the fees would raise about $650,000 a year in revenue. Hallberg doubts the charges would mean a significant drop in the number of people visiting those parks.

It's too early to say how county commissioners will respond to the proposal. Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer did not return phone calls Friday, but other commissioners said they had not made up their minds.

Commissioner Ed Collins said he would like to see the fees aimed primarily at non-Pasco residents, rather than locals. Hallberg, however, said the county cannot discriminate based on residence. He said annual passes of $30 or $40 might be a way to for locals to save some money.

Commissioner Hap Clark said charging fees only in coastal parks smacked of discrimination against West Pasco.

"If you've done it for one park, you'd have to do it for all," he said.

Hallberg said parking fees eventually could be levied at all parks. He started with the coastal parks, he said, because those draw the most non-county residents and because those have some of the highest maintenance costs.

At Robert K. Rees Park on Friday afternoon, reactions to the proposal were mixed among the overflow crowd dominated by vacationers and winter residents.

Michigan resident Mike Smith, for instance, said he wouldn't think twice about paying $2. "We're used to it," he said. "In Michigan we have to pay $7 or get an annual pass."

New Port Richey resident Mike Raphael liked the idea. It would help spread some of the county's expenses to tourists and part-time residents, he said.

Diane Fichera of New Hampshire said she wouldn't pay the fee, not when she could drive a little farther and visit Anderson and Howard parks in north Pinellas for free.

"I think it would discourage people from coming down here to stay if they had to pay for every little thing," said Harriet Kuntzman of Ohio. "Nature is something that ought to be free."