By Kyle LoJacono
A $2 park fee meant to plug a $691,000 budget hole is falling short of expectations.
The Pasco Parks and Recreation Department’s new user began in November at 11 county parks. The charge was for one vehicle per day, with the exception of residents who purchased a $60 annual pass. The county enacted the fee to prevent having to close county facilities or raise taxes during the last budget cycle.
“We were faced with a tough budget reality,” said department director Rick Buckman. “We could have either closed parks for a couple days each week and permanently close the remaining two county pools, raised taxes for everyone or start the user fees. The commission got feedback from residents and they voted for the fees.”
One of those remaining pools that could have been closed is the one at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway.
The budget shortfall for the department was almost $900,000 for the current fiscal year on top of the $1.8 million it has cut during the last three years. The goal of the park fee is to make up $691,000 of that shortfall, but the county has collected only $60,000 during the first two months.
In addition, county sponsored youth leagues and programs had an increased fee to make up the rest of the shortfall. Those leagues are on track to do just that, but user fees are lagging behind.
“We are using the same program they’re using in Hillsborough County,” Buckman said. “It’s been successful there and that’s one of the reasons the commission wanted to try the user fees.”
Since the fees in Hillsborough started in November 2009, the county has collected $927,786, according to Hillsborough spokeswoman Kemly Green. Hillsborough Parks, Recreation and Conservation spokesman John Brill said the fees were needed to keep the department operating.
Both counties’ law enforcement officers can write tickets to anyone they catch not paying the entry fee.
Jeffrey Steinsnyder, county attorney, said several businesses owners, mainly on the Gulf coast, argued the fees went against county ordinances. He said the only problem was the wrong ordinance was listed on the signs telling guests about the fee to enter.
“The board has the authority to impose fees for parking,” Steinsnyder said.
The incorrect signs have been removed after county administrator John Gallagher sent an e-mail to several Pasco departments reading, “The ordinance on the signs are not correct. I would appreciate if you would remove this language until the issues is addressed by the Board.”
Buckman said the signs will soon be up with the correct wording.
“We still get people calling and sending messages who are mad about the fees,” Buckman said. “Our department and the board of commissioners believe people want parks. They make life better in the county and this was the best way to keep them open.”
The most recent Pasco residents survey, which polled nearly 2,000 county inhabitants, showed that 63 percent of people support user fees as opposed to raising taxes for such programs as parks and recreation.
Buckman said the department is still planning on expanding the John S. Burks Memorial Park in Dade City and possibly the Land O’ Lakes Community Center, neither of which have entry fees.
Buckman said the Dade City construction will happen, including the addition of a new soccer/football field. It will also convert an old softball field into one for soccer/football. He said once done, the expansion will have no new operating cost, which is different from Land O’ Lakes.
“We’re going to go through 30 percent of the design and then wait until we have the budget to operate it,” Buckman said. “The plan is to add many more fields in Land O’ Lakes for soccer, which would require more people to staff it. We don’t want to expand and then not be able to staff it.”
For additional information on the Pasco Parks and Recreation Department, visit portal.pascocountyfl.net. For Hillsborough’s department, visit www.hillsboroughcounty.org.
Pasco parks with entry fees
Withlacoochee River Park, 12449 Withlacoochee Blvd., Dade City
Suncoast Trail, stretches from Lutz into Hernando though central Pasco
Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, 10500 Wilderness Park Blvd., New Port Richey
Crews Lake Wilderness Park, 16739 Crews Lake Drive, Spring Hill
Anclote River Park, 1119 Baillies Bluff Road, Holiday
Anclote Gulf Park, 2305 Baillies Bluff Road, Holiday
Key Vista Park, 2700 Baillies Bluff Road, Holiday
Moon Lake Park, 8985 Lake Drive, New Port Richey
Robert K. Rees Memorial Park, 4835 Green Key Road, New Port Richey
Eagle Point Park, 4499 Strauber Memorial Highway, New Port Richey
Robert J. Strickland Memorial Park, 6345 Clark St., Hudson