Little League dads' concerns prod county to change focus
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
The idea seemed simple enough to Richard Wilkes: become a Little League coach and get the double benefit of helping other kids while encouraging his daughter's and son's baseball talents.
But life became complicated for him and other fathers in south Pinellas as the popularity of the games meant long rides and late nights during the school year.
They found a solution in their own backyard and in the process changed the way the county deals with recreation by calling attention to the desire of those in unincorporated Pinellas for places to play ball and have other activities. County officials have vowed to begin providing more active recreation for children in the unincorporated area. It's a decision that could prove costly for taxpayers in the unincorporated areas.
Wilkes lobbied County Commissioner John Morroni and other Pinellas County officials for a ballfield closer to his south Pinellas home. His efforts were more successful than his greatest expectations.
He received the county's permission to temporarily use a small portion of county land for a practice ballfield. That use became official Tuesday with a unanimous vote of the County Commission.
Wilkes' pleas spawned a countywide study of recreation that culminated in a reversal of the county's recreation philosophy.
Until now the county provided parks and other areas for passive recreation only, leaving the cities to provide ballfields and tot lots for more active fun. But cities have long charged extra for county residents who used those facilities and that's becoming less acceptable to county residents like Wilkes, especially when a long drive is included.
"County residents want to have some ability to have active recreation," Wilkes said.
County Administrator Steve Spratt says county officials have listened.
The south Pinellas ballfield is one of the first examples of the new county emphasis on providing active recreation in unincorporated areas. Another example will be at the Lealman Park, where a tot lot is scheduled for construction later this summer.
Such a change in philosophy comes at a price, Spratt said. The tax rate for the 280,000 residents of unincorporated Pinellas will rise from $1.86 to $2.36 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value if the County Commission approves the proposal later this year.
That proposal has been unpopular with some. So last Saturday, Spratt visited with leaders of a countywide group to explain his proposals and help sell the rate hike.
The group, the Unincorporated Community Associations of Pinellas, is still forming. Its goal is to unite community and business groups to speak out for the interests of residents of the unincorporated areas as a way to offset the lobbying power of the county's 24 cities.
While there, Spratt also got an earful of concerns from elsewhere in Pinellas, especially concerns about annexation and its affect on the overall tax base.
Scott Fisher, head of the Old Palm Harbor Community Association, said annexation should be a concern for all residents of the unincorporated areas. When a business is annexed anywhere in the county, he said, its elimination from the tax base hurts those left outside cities.
Spratt agreed, saying that money is behind annexation. The cities, he said, can pick up tax revenue without much of a cost outlay.
"Cities get more revenue than costs and the unincorporated area loses more revenue than costs," Spratt said. "(Sheriff) Everett Rice can't shave half a police car."
Spratt also talked about his new recreation initiative. The county would pay cities a set amount of money each year, he said, and the cities would stop charging premiums to county residents who want to use the facilities. Spratt also wants to use Pinellas County Schools as places for children to play.
That proposal, he said, allows people to use facilities that are already there without having to wait for the county to build new fields and other facilities.
"We don't have the ability to pop parks out of the ground overnight," Spratt said.
If you go
The Unincorporated Community Associations of Pinellas will meet at 9 a.m. July 20 at Lealman Fire Station 18, 4017 56th Ave. N. For information, call Ray Neri, (727) 527-5352, or Scott Fisher, (727) 784-2345.
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