Over at Green Key Beach on Friday, a gang of retirees from the Landings at Sea Forest had gathered to eat and gab at one of the picnic shelters.
They were asked: Would they still make their date if they had to pay a $2 per car admission fee at the county park?
Their answer: Yes.
"This is great," said Sylvia Shiner. "It'd be worth the $2."
Whether others would be so willing to pony up an admission fee at Pasco's most popular parks is unclear.
"I'm sure we'll get a mixed reaction," said parks director Rick Buckman. "But the real goal isn't to soak everybody. The real goal is to offset the reduction in (property) taxes."
County staff for the first time have proposed charging entrance fees at Pasco parks as a way to supplement a budget hard hit by falling tax revenue.
The parks budget is facing up to $800,000 in cuts, which could include closing some of the most heavily visited parks twice a week and shuttering swimming pools at Land O'Lakes Recreation Center and Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson.
But adding park admission fees, plus other new charges for youth leagues and boat launching, could generate $876,000 in revenue, the county estimates. That additional revenue could be used to prevent those cuts, though commissioners have said nothing is off the table.
Commissioners will consider over the summer whether to impose the fees as they finalize the budget.
Cars of up to eight people would pay $2 at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, Anclote River Park, Anclote Gulf Park, Crews Lake, Withlacoochee River Park, Key Vista, Eagle Point, Moon Lake Park, Green Key (officially known as Robert K. Rees Beach) and the Suncoast Trailhead. People who walk or bike into the parks would not owe the $2.
A new survey of Pasco residents shows support for user fees for a variety of services, ranging from parks to Meals on Wheels.
Nearly 65 percent of the 1,530 people who filled out the county survey said they supported user fees. Compare that to the less than 50 percent of respondents who supported increasing property taxes.
Almost 25 percent of the respondents said they would never use the parks if there was a fee. Less than 30 percent would go to parks between three and a dozen times a year. Seven percent said they would go more than 26 times a year.
What isn't known, however, is how many of the survey respondents are frequent park users now.
Over at Green Key on Friday, Curtis Savary of Port Richey was eating a hot dog as he watched his two children run through the sand. He said he'd be willing to pay admission fees at the larger parks. But he didn't think Green Key was worth it.
"At Anclote, I could see them doing that," he said. "But this one is rinky-dink."
The larger parks, all of which have electricity, would get meters, which print out tickets for visitors to put on their dashboards. The smaller, less-visited parks would use "iron rangers," a voluntary system in which visitors would put their money in envelopes.
Officials decided that paying staff members to collect the fees would be more costly, said Buckman.
Right now, boat ramp fees at Anclote are enforced by the Pasco sheriff's community policing officers. But it's unclear what level of enforcement the county would do at the other parks, and Buckman said he is still talking with county attorneys about their options.
Park officials could write ordinance violations, which must be handed to the offenders, but they don't have the authority to write traffic citations that could be left on the windshield, said Buckman.
"If it's not enforced," he said, "people aren't going to consider paying the fee."
Pasco isn't alone in contemplating fees.
Hillsborough officials last year had proposed closing regional parks twice a week. But residents there pushed back, saying they'd rather pay admission fees than see their parks closed.
So last November, Hillsborough began charging $2 admission fees at its regional parks. Annual passes are also available, $50 for one person and $100 for a family.
At its bigger parks, Hillsborough has a staff member collecting the entrance fees as cars go in. The smaller parks use the iron rangers.
Officials there projected the admission fees would raise $1.2 million by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
By the end of May, the fees had generated about $476,000.
Hillsborough parks spokesman John Brill said the final tally may not hit the projected mark, but noted that the fees will not have been in place a full year. Plus, he said, the first year has involved a certain bit of education.
"Some people did show up and say, 'Geez, when did this start?'" said Brill. "But in most cases, people were okay with it."
In the smaller parks, Hillsborough workers do periodic patrols to check for receipts on windshields. But the most they have the authority to do is leave remember-to-pay fliers, said Brill.
Buckman said Pasco officials are already seeing an uptick in vandalism at parks in the year since his department cut staff.
"The user fee is just to ensure that people who come have a quality experience. Certainly if attendance went down, we'd have to look at something else," said Buckman. "But we don't want them to come to a park and have it a mess and see things going on that shouldn't be going on."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.
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By the numbers
Number of vehicles counted at Pasco's most popular parks in 2009:
300,000 Anclote River Park
250,000 Anclote Gulf Park
186,000 Starkey Park
40,000 Crews Lake
30,000 Withlacoochee River Park
Source: Pasco County government