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    How will recreation funds be disbursed?

    A county tax rate increase for residents outside cities will bring in money for recreation programs. Partnerships will help stretch funds.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 2, 2002

    The requests stretch from Tierra Verde to East Lake: more and better ball fields, skate parks, equestrian trails.

    Now that the county government will have an extra $2.1 million to spend on recreation programs, county commissioners have to make choices.

    Where will the money go?

    Which programs will benefit?

    Commissioners haven't made any decisions, but they already have some ideas. Tops on the list for Commission Chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd and Commissioner Susan Latvala: the county's kids.

    There are 150,000 children ages 5 to 19 in Pinellas, and about 50,000 live outside cities. Commissioners have heard too many stories about children turned away from overcrowded Little Leagues or being driven halfway across the county to play soccer.

    The county also needs to look first at plans that provide the most bang for the buck, Todd said. Working out agreements with the school district to use fields at certain schools or using county equipment to mow nonprofit groups' ball fields would be less expensive and helpful.

    "We've got some areas where parents are out buying tractors and doing things that the county could easily assist in without a great deal of expense," Todd said.

    The county needs to set a priority list of the biggest needs and partner with others to make dollars stretch, Todd said.

    On Tuesday, commissioners passed a property tax rate increase for residents outside cities. Those residents pay both the countywide property tax and a special tax that funds services that only benefit them, such as sheriff's patrols. That tax rate increased 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value.

    The increase will bring in the new recreation money, as well as nearly $2 million to improve roads, sidewalks and neighborhoods. The rate increase had support from many groups, especially nonprofit recreation leagues. Many of them have already asked for help.

    County officials haven't made any decisions. But county staffers did an earlier report on possible programs. Now they'll be coming up with more specific recommendations for commissioners to decide.

    That $2 million won't be enough to meet everyone's recreation needs, admitted County Administrator Steve Spratt.

    "I think everybody understands that they're not necessarily going to get everything they want," he said.

    Even so, Spratt said, he hopes to make the new money stretch.

    "A little bit of money can go a long way," he said. "Building a soccer field, new lighting -- those are not expensive, big-ticket items."

    The county also has $1.4 million in its capital improvements budget for recreation, and some of that money also could fund the new programs, Spratt said.

    Most of the programs county officials have discussed involve partnerships. Commissioners are reluctant to have the county begin operating daily recreation programs. Instead, they have focused on such options as making deals with the cities to charge unincorporated residents the same as city residents for recreation programs and providing county land for new recreation facilities.

    One thing Todd and Latvala said won't be a factor: commissioners' district lines. Both said commissioners have to prioritize based on needs, not on whose district each project is in.

    "I have a lot of faith in this commission, that they can rise above that kind of thinking," Todd said. Commissioners "have a concern for young people all over the county, not just in their district."

    Where could the money go?

    Commissioners haven't made any decisions, but they've talked to several groups, including:

    Seminole Jr. Warhawks

    Cross Bayou Little League

    East Lake Youth Soccer Association

    Boys and Girls Club

    Largo, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Seminole, Safety Harbor, Dunedin and other cities

    Palm Harbor Community Service Agency

    School district regarding using Palm Harbor Elementary School, East Lake High School, Clearwater High School, Osceola Middle and High schools, Pinellas Vocational Technical Institute.

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