Pasco County will merge its parks and recreation department and its environmental lands program and create a new division – the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.
The Pasco Commission approved the merger at its May 5 meeting.
The restructuring comes as the county prepares to implement a master plan for county parks. The focus is on improving efficiency, better customer service and keeping up with the growth from new development.
“It all comes down to funding really,” said Cathy Pearson, assistant county administrator for public services.
The restructured department would have three managers for natural resources, fiscal and support services, and parks and recreation, who would report to a director of parks, recreation and natural resources.
“We’re going through the budget now,” Pearson said. “It’s been a challenge.”
The parks department has struggled since 2009 through lean times with budget cuts and job layoffs. To fill in financial gaps, the county began charging user fees four years ago at 11 of its parks, including $2 parking fees. Youth league teams, co-sponsored by the county, including the Central Pasco Soccer Club, the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association and the Dade City Little League, also have been charged fees.
Some commissioners would like to see an end to the parking and athletic participation fees.
“We’re taxing things that we’re trying to encourage,” said Commissioner Jack Mariano.
But losing revenues means more tough budget decisions.
Parks and recreation employees have done a “tremendous” job keeping up with services, but Pearson said, “We’re really struggling. Hopefully we’ll come up with some creative ideas.”
Revenues since 2009 have increased from about $840,000 to about $1.5 million currently. But the department’s overall budget in that same time dropped from about $10 million to about $8.9 million.
The loss of parking and athletic fees would mean about $440,000 in lost revenues, Pearson said.
During public comment at the May 5 meeting, Jeff Olsen of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association made a plea for commissioners to restore the parks and recreation’s budget to a level more in line with budgets prior to the recession.
“A lot of money has been siphoned away from some important needs,” Olsen said.
A job description for the newly created position of natural resources manager will be advertised in the next week or so.
Along with the reorganization, Rick Buckman, the county’s current parks and recreation director, will take on a new role as park supervisor for Moon Lake Park, Robert Strickland and Robert Rees Memorial parks.
He also will provide support during the transition, said Pearson, adding that finding a natural resources manager could take months.
Another newly created position of program coordinator will not be filled until the manager is on board and can decide if the position is needed, Pearson said.
The county has budgeted $160,700 for salaries and benefits for the two positions. The manager’s salary would be in the range of $70,000 to $85,000.
The decision to step away from the director’s job was one that Buckman made on his own, said Pearson.
“It was a surprise to me,” she said.
Buckman’s new job as parks supervisor became available as the result of another employee’s retirement.
“Rick Buckman has been a tremendous asset for the county, building a tremendous team, ” said Land O’ Lakes resident Sandy Graves.
Chairman Ted Schrader also had praise for Buckman.
“I think we all realize the work Mr. Buckman has done through trying times,” he said. “You never complained. You managed to get your job done.”
Published May 13, 2015