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Fun fee plan raises questions

The city proposes charging residents of unincorporated Pinellas more in recreation fees than those of other cities.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published June 24, 2003

LARGO - The city is thinking about charging people who live in unincorporated Pinellas County higher recreational fees than other outsiders, such as residents of Clearwater and Seminole.

Largo residents now pay $3.50 for an annual recreation membership card. All nonresidents pay $25 for annual membership cards and $15 for a six-month cards.

The city is proposing a three-tier system that would charge people who live in unincorporated areas $75 for annual memberships or $40 for six-month memberships.

Joan Byrne, Largo Recreation Parks and Arts director, said the costs of providing the programs make the higher rates necessary. But Pinellas County officials say it's unfair to create a new category just for people who live in unincorporated areas of the county.

The city is considering the new category because nonresidents who live in other municipalities are paying for active recreation programs in their own towns while unincorporated county residents are not, Byrne said.

Unincorporated county residents don't contribute because the county has a "passive" park system that's paid for with countywide property taxes. It's primarily regional green spaces. On the other hand, municipalities have historically concentrated on smaller neighborhood and active recreation programs.

Pinellas County Park and Recreation operations manager Kathy Swain said she knows of no other municipality that has a separate rate just for people who live in unincorporated Pinellas.

"This is the first I've heard of a three-tier system," she said. "Most have resident and nonresident rates."

Mark Woodard, assistant county administrator, said it's okay for a city to charge its residents less than nonresidents because resident tax dollars go to city services and nonresident taxes don't.

But, he said, all nonresidents should be treated the same.

"To have a third tier that differentiates unincorporated residents and other residents doesn't on the face of it make a lot of sense to me," Woodard said. "It doesn't seem to hold a lot of water."

Besides, Woodard said, the county has made an effort to expand active recreation with about $2-million for recreation initiatives, including partnerships with nonprofit agencies to expand sports programs.

County officials also say the charges come at a time when the county has agreed to pay part of the tab for unincorporated residents.

In March, the county began a program that reimburses people who live in unincorporated Pinellas and use municipal recreational facilities. People who live in unincorporated Pinellas have to pay the higher nonresident fees for municipal recreation programs up front, but with the reimbursement they won't have to pay more than municipal residents.

They must submit a utility bill or voter identification card, a driver's license or Florida ID card, a copy of the city recreation card and an original receipt from the city recreation facility. Forms are available online at www.pinellascounty.org at County Connection Centers and the county's park department administration office, 631 Chesnut St., Clearwater.

Fees qualifying for the reimbursement program must have been incurred since Jan. 1.

"I find (Largo's proposal) quite interesting in light of the county's current reimbursement program," Swain said of the proposed new rates.

Other cities have had higher nonresident rates than Largo's and the city was trying to bring the costs in line, Byrne said.

Seminole and Clearwater each charge nonresidents $70, and St. Petersburg charges $100.

"There was an eventual need to pass the cost along to cover what it actually costs to provide these services," Byrne said.

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 24, 2003, 01:47:56]


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