When vandals stole two pay phones from Ernie Wever Youth Park on Jan. 31, all they left were the wires.
Overnight, the bases, coin boxes, receivers and stands simply disappeared.
The incident followed a similar plundering last June at Ridge Manor Park and capped what officials describe as a rash of hits on pay phones in county parks and libraries.
"It's been a constant nightmare," county parks and recreation director Pat Fagan said. "We've had them all over the county."
The problem has become so widespread, according to Fagan, that the companies supplying the phones will no longer replace them for free. Faced with estimated replacement costs of up to $940 per phone, officials are fed up.
"I am not looking at replacing the phones once they're vandalized," Fagan said. "That's taxpayers' dollars that we've got to look at."
But another concern is safety.
Dave Kretschmar spends a lot of time in parks watching his 16-year-old son play soccer. He opposes the new approach.
"If there's somebody out vandalizing the parks, then obviously there's vandals in the parks," said Kretschmar. "It's a bad idea to get rid of the phones."
His son usually carries a cell phone, and during games there are parents around in case of an emergency, said Kretschmar. But eventually, he added, parks empty out. "What if a kid's stranded there at night thinking his parents are coming and everyone's left?"
Kretschmar also questioned the wisdom of removing phones from parks near the water.
"Any place that has water around it, you've got to have a phone," he said. "You have all kinds of things that could happen out there."
Fagan said he is sensitive to residents' need for access to telephone service. He said most parks have maintenance buildings with phones available during the day. The rest of the time, he said, "there's enough cellular telephones that somebody's going to have a phone."
At Hernando Beach Park, he added, the pay phone was vandalized repeatedly and taken out last year.
"If we have major liability concerns, then we may have to reconsider replacing them in the park system," he allowed.
In the county government center, Fagan and technology services director Garry Allen have come up with a plan to replace pay phones with courtesy phones within the next two months. One-time installation costs between $200 and $300 per phone, compared with an average of $18 per month per pay phone, officials said.
With courtesy phones, local calls would be free, but long-distance calls would be restricted to credit card access only.
"We feel that's a win-win," said Allen.
_ Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to farrellsptimes.com.