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Hillsborough and Pinellas to keep park entry fees, while Pasco makes them free again

Jermaine Ferguson takes the $5 entry fee from a visitor at Fort De Soto Park on Wednesday. Pasco County has done away with recession era park fees, but Hillsborough and Pinellas county plan to continue to charge people to use parks like Fort De Soto and Lettuce Lake Park. LARA CERRI   |   Times

Jermaine Ferguson takes the $5 entry fee from a visitor at Fort De Soto Park on Wednesday. Pasco County has done away with recession era park fees, but Hillsborough and Pinellas county plan to continue to charge people to use parks like Fort De Soto and Lettuce Lake Park. LARA CERRI | Times
Published Jul. 29, 2017

One thing stands between Mark Crawford and the mackerel schooling in the topaz saltwater around the pier at Fort De Soto Park: a toll booth. And even if the lady inside is as sweet as orange blossom honey, she still wants his five dollars.

He's been coming since he was a boy. But lately?

"I haven't come out here at all," said Crawford, 60, of Seminole, violating the directive on his hat — SHUT UP AND FISH.

He hasn't come lately because of the fee, put in place in 2011, after the Great Recession prompted local governments to begin charging to visit parks. Because five bucks matters when you're out of work, drive a full-size pickup and live in Seminole.

One Tampa Bay-area county is turning back the clock starting in October. With the economy recovering, Pasco County commissioners are getting rid of park fees in place since 2010.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough?


PASCO COUNTY: Park fees to end soon

The return of free parks in Pasco comes thanks to one passionate commissioner. Jack Mariano had worked to eliminate the $2 parking fee at nine coastal and wilderness parks since the county started charging them.

Year after year, he pushed. Surveys he conducted showed more than 80 percent of residents were opposed to the fees, he said.

"I think they should just be straight free for people," Mariano said of the parks. "No question about it." Citizens pay taxes, he argued. Why should they pay more to access land they own?

But rolling back park fees is not even up for discussion in Pinellas or Hillsborough.

Lara Cerri

Visitors enjoy a summer day at Fort De Soto Park on Wednesday.

Calls to commissioners in both counties turned up zero champions of making parks free again. Commissioners' staffers uniformly said they rarely, if ever, hear complaints from constituents about the fees.

"There is no talk about rolling them back," said Julian Hills, a public information specialist with Pinellas County, where the $5 entry fees were put in place at Fort De Soto and Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to make up for budget shortfalls when times were tough.

Same in Hillsborough, where county spokesman Todd Pratt said the fiscally sound parks are "an incredible value" at the $2 entry fee for big parks and $5 to launch a boat.

During the recession, counties sold the public on the fees as an alternative to closing the parks several days a week.

Hillsborough's fees are significantly less than those at state parks or private marinas, said Pratt. Hillsborough River State Park, for instance, charges $6 per vehicle.

But entry fees have had an effect.

Lara Cerri

Phah Smitasin, 7, of Orlando, guides her fishing pole with the help of Bobby Suntron, right, of Orlando, on the Fort De Soto Gulf Pier.

Visitors to Fort De Soto fell from 2.8 million in 2011 to 2.4 million in 2012, after the fee was in place. There was a similar drop at Fred Howard, but the new fees helped stem a staffing shortage and provided money for needed park improvements. And annual visitors ticked up to 2.5 million at Fort De Soto in 2016.

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Park visitors in Hillsborough fell from around 4 million a year to 2.2 million after the fees were instituted in 2009, said Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Director Forest Turbiville. The number is up, now around 3 million visitors per year.

At first, complaints rolled in.

"When we initially instituted the fees in 2009, we'd get phone calls because people were used to the parks being free since, well, forever," said Turbiville. "But those calls are minimal today."

Lara Cerri

Phah Smitasin, 7, of Orlando, shows off her catch of the day on the Fort De Soto Gulf Pier at Fort De Soto Park on Wednesday.

Pasco commissioners agreed to spend a portion of a $3 million budget windfall to cover the lost park fees. But Hillsborough County is expecting to be pinched by a shortfall of some $30 million if a state-wide tax break referendum on the ballot this November passes and goes into effect next year. Commissioners also have voted to direct any growth in tax receipts toward transportation.

"The fees contribute about $2.2 million to our overall budget," Turbiville said. "It plays a pretty significant role in keeping our parks open a few more days a week."

Mariano, in Pasco County, said we all benefit if everyone has access to parks, whether they have $2 or not.

"The sooner we get rid of fees for parks across the state, the better off we'll be," he said. "Parks are a quality of life issue."

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Mark Crawford tends to agree.

"I think it's deterring people," he said of the entrance fee to Fort De Soto. "If they really want people to enjoy what they've done out here, they need to roll it back.

"How do we make that happen?"

When his dad worked for General Electric, they held a company picnic at Fort De Doto, what has been called the nation's best beach. He brought his own sons out almost every weekend to fish when they were growing up.

"Think about the principle of parks, what they stood for," he said. "They should be free for all people."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.


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