1. Florida Politics

Referendum for parks? No better time

Published Jun. 27, 2012

Just when you thought time was running out for the Friendship Trail Bridge, public officials go getting all creative on you.

As in: a proposal to let voters decide.

As in: not just saving a honey of a park across the water, but also funding parks and recreation countywide at a time when we need them most.

This week the Hillsborough County Commission again considers the old Gandy Bridge — rescued at the last minute from demolition, converted into what turned out to be a wildly popular recreation trail across the water and abruptly closed after nine years in 2008 when it was judged to be a crumbling danger.

For some 600,000 of us who yearly walked, skated, ran and biked that 2.6 miles over the waves between Tampa and St. Petersburg, this was a heartbreak. It was also heartburn for some savvier public officials who understood a reborn bridge had become the kind of unique amenity that makes a community that much more interesting and attractive to the rest of the world.

Most heartbreaking of all, though, was the price tag in the millions to fix it, and with taxpayers in no mood.

Elected officials did not embrace the price nor its potential political backlash.

So even with a recent and enthusiastic pack of young professionals scrambling for a plan to save and remake the old Gandy, it faces the real possibility of demolition.

But wait — an idea that makes sense.

(Yes, still talking government here.)

Under a proposal by County Administrator Mike Merrill, voters could be asked in a November referendum to consider raising their property taxes 21 cents per $1,000 of property value over ten years — or $25 a year for a $165,000 home that has a $50,000 homestead exemption.

That relatively small amount would fund $80 million: $27.5 million to rebuild the park across the water, and — maybe the best part — a lot of money for badly needed park facilities and improvements countywide.

Merrill says one kind of referendum Florida voters tend to approve is for parks and recreation. "It places the whole decision in the hands of voters," he said. "It gives plenty of time to have discussions over the summer."

And there's no good reason for commissioners not to get behind it.

Reality check: This will be a hard sell to voters. Expect loud protest from those who oppose spending anything on anything, preaching to wallet-weary voters still weathering the rotten economy.

But the economy is exactly the point, since parks (and libraries) couldn't be more important than when people have the least to spend.

Tampa did something remarkable the other day: The city reduced park and recreation fees. Reduced! Cut back! That makes programs more accessible and provides a place for kids to do something on summer vacation beyond getting into trouble.

This kind of thinking comes from the school of pay now, gain later. It's thinking ahead instead of staying safely short-sighted. It's figuring out when the cost of progress might be worth it.

Remember, we're not talking a fancy sports stadium here, but parks — rec centers, softball fields and soccer pitches for kids to play on.

Plus, one amazing park over the water that's still worth saving.