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Get park fees from those who can pay

In 1986 voters approved a $13-million bond issue to build an impressive system of parks in Pasco County. It was a wise investment.

The sparkling new public facilities have enhanced the quality of life in Pasco and should stand for years as a monument to local foresight. In 1994, however, officials find themselves increasingly short of money to operate and maintain the parks. New user fees are contemplated as a way to raise sufficient funds. The idea has merit, but additional action is required of county commissioners.

Commissioners are expected today to consider user fees at Pasco's four gulfside parks. Park users would pay $2 per car to park, $3 to launch a boat. A visitor who wishes to park his car and launch a boat would pay a total of $5. The idea is controversial, to say the least. The right decision demands a rare degree of political fortitude from a majority of this commission.

User fees are inherently regressive. Wealthy park visitors would barely notice the new fee. Poor residents, in some cases, might be denied access to parks for financial reasons.

An alternative is to increase property taxes. But County Administrator John Gallagher says it may be impractical to raise taxes because the county is already near the maximum tax rate allowed by state law. In addition, the value of Pasco property is not expected to increase significantly, if at all, in the foreseeable future. In other words, the property tax well is running dry.

The best alternative is to design a system of user fees that collects money from those who can most afford to pay. At the same time, the county must minimize the cost of operating and maintaining its parks. With this in mind, commissioners should approve a $5 fee to launch boats in gulfside parks. Boat owners, by definition, can afford to pay a launch fee. By charging $5 to launch a boat, instead of $3, the county might reduce or even eliminate the proposed parking fee. Residents might be spared a charge to drive to the water to watch the sunset. If a parking fee is necessary, commissioners should offer an annual fee to discount the total cost to frequent visitors.

Before the commission decides on fees, however, it should suspend work on the new park in Odessa.

Projected annual operating and maintenance costs at Odessa Park exceed $93,000. This represents an intolerable expense at a time when officials are desperately seeking money to operate and maintain existing parks. Odessa Park should wait until the county can afford to maintain it. County commissioners ducked this difficult decision in September. Commissioners Ed Collins, Bonnie Zimmer and Sylvia Young formed a 3-2 majority to proceed with work on Odessa Park. It is not too late for them to change their minds.

They should.

Neither property taxes nor user fees are justified as long as the commission proceeds with its plan to pile on even more unaffordable expenses.