In a few weeks, Hernando County will embark on a park experiment of sorts.
Parking pass stations will pop up in two busy coastal parks as a way to cut staffing costs for a county struggling with a roughly $10.3 million budget deficit.
The machines - two in Pine Island's Alfred McKethan Park and one in Rogers Park on the Weeki Wachee River - would cut labor costs by reducing the number of attendants on duty.
Unlike traditional coin-fed parking meters, these machines require visitors using cash or credit cards to purchase a ticket to display on a vehicle's dashboard. There is no time limit; the visitor can stay until the park closes.
Now at least one county commissioner is having second thoughts and plans to offer another idea.
The commission erred recently when it selected those two facilities for the machines, Commissioner Jeff Stabins contends. The traffic congestion and security issues are too great to cut down on the number of attendants, Stabins said.
Stabins said he will likely ask fellow commissioners at the board's regular meeting Tuesday to keep current staffing levels at Rogers and McKethan, increase admission fees and put the parking stations in two other places: Bayport Park and the Hernando Beach boat ramp.
"We picked the wrong first two locations (for the stations)," Stabins said. "I'm not ready to get into something that's doomed to fail. Those parks get full. We need humans there."
Currently at Pine Island, two park attendants and one maintenance staffer work each shift, seven days a week.
One attendant works at a booth at the gate to accept entry fees of $3 per car during the season, which runs from mid-February to mid-November. Another acts as a spotter for open parking spaces and communicates by radio with the gate worker to direct visitors to open spaces.
Once two parking stations go in next month, one gate attendant and one maintenance staffer will work each shift, parks and recreation director Pat Fagan said. They also will be responsible for writing citations for cars that do not display a ticket.
Rogers Park, at 7244 Shoal Line Blvd., will get one machine and lose its sole full-time attendant, Fagan said. Other staffers will come on site to check dashboards for parking passes.
The in-season parking fee will remain at $3 for both parks. Admission would still be free in the off-season months.
The three parking stations cost the county $41,000. The current plan would allow Fagan to cut two positions at an annual savings of roughly $70,000. The total annual revenue from parking fees at both parks of roughly $200,000 is expected to remain about the same, Fagan said.
Violators would be fined, though, meaning more income for the county. The amount of the fine has yet to be determined.
Fagan has been told to cut $1 million - or nearly half - of his operating budget this year.
Stabins toured most of the county's 25 parks last week to get a sense of how parking or entrance fees might work at other facilities. After visits to McKethan and Rogers parks, Stabins said he realized that both parks need more staff to keep the system flowing smoothly and provide an sufficient level of security.
Those could prove to be legitimate concerns, Fagan said.
"It's going to be pretty hard with these individuals to keep up with everything, but the board decided this is the direction we're going to try right now," he said.
There is still time to change course, and Stabins said has asked for the issue to be placed on the agenda for next week's regular meeting.
The per-car charge at McKethan, at 10840 Pine Island Drive, could be increased to $5 to help cover the personnel costs, Stabins said. The fee at Rogers could go up $1, if at all, he said.
The parking machines would work better at the recently renovated and expanded Bayport Park, which boasts a boat ramp, and the Hernando Beach boat ramp on Shoal Line Boulevard, Stabins said.
The county does not charge a fee for use of those facilities, so installing the stations would mean more revenue. The fee should be $5 for both parks, Stabins said.
"There are many out-of-county, out-of-state boaters who use our ramps and this would be an excellent opportunity to get a fee to help pay for the maintenance of these facilities," Stabins said. "I think counties south of us charge more than that. We're just way behind the times."
Stabins acknowledged that increasing fees in some parks and adding new ones at others opens another proverbial can of worms.
"Well," he said, "this is the year for worms."
Stabins may have at least one ally. Commissioner Rose Rocco voted against the parking stations at the two parks. She worried about vandalism and maintenance issues, but she also had similar concerns about cutting manpower at two parks with such high traffic.
Rocco said Tuesday that she might be more amenable to the machines at Bayport and Hernando Beach.
"I'd be open to discussing that one," she said.
Stabins has another idea to raise revenue in the long run.
The county owns about 51 acres of land adjacent to Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill, which has been set aside for park expansion.
Stabins suggested leasing some of the land to a private entity that could operate a business, capitalize on the traffic to the park and pay a dividend to the county.
"I'm recommending we rezone the land so we can lease it in a public-private partnership to a corporation that can come in and establish a sports-related commercial activity," Stabins said. "Maybe a small hotel, restaurants, a Sports Authority-type business."
Stabins has had initial conversations with the county's business development director Mike McHugh and land services director Ron Pianta.
McHugh stressed that the chat lasted about five minutes and didn't get out of the conceptual realm, but he noted that such a lease might be constructed similar to those at the airport, where the county sees an annual return based on the value of the land.
The idea for Anderson Snow could mean leveraging the county's asset, McHugh said.
"Right now I think every opportunity needs to be vetted and I think this is certainly one of them," he said.
By Stabins' calculations, the county could see an annual return of a couple hundred thousand dollars based on the current $2 million value of the land, Stabins said. That would go a long way toward stabilizing the county parks budget and preventing padlocks from going up on park gates.
"That kind of extreme measure is something I never want this county to have to do," Stabins said. "We just need to think outside the box and I think this is an ideal place to do that."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.