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Column

Dog park boondoggle or city's good move?

By DIANE STIENLE, Editor of Editorials
Published August 21, 2007


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This is a miserable time to be a government official in Florida.

The public is unhappy about - well, everything. There is intense scrutiny of all levels of government by the public, the media, even the bloggers. The state's economy is stumbling. Government budgets are tight. Government employees' morale is poor.

For those who serve in government, it must seem like there are no simple decisions anymore. Yet their constituents are sure that they could do a better job themselves running the government.

So let's play City Council Person for a Day.

Let's take one decision made recently by the Clearwater City Council - a decision that not so long ago would have been easy, but now is complicated and controversial.

It involves a dog park.

Clearwater has a very popular dog park at Crest Lake Park on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. It's a nice place, with grass and shade and benches. Clearwater built it around the time lots of other local governments, here and throughout the nation, were building dog parks. It was the thing to do.

After the park opened, Clearwater officials saw what a great thing it was. They also began to hear from people in the north end of town who wanted a dog park near them. And the officials thought, well why not? Who wouldn't like having a safe place to take their dog for an off-leash romp?

So Clearwater planned another dog park. Put it in the city's Park Master Plan. Applied for and won a $200,000 state recreation grant to pay half the cost of building it. (There are state grants for dog parks? Maybe the state budget isn't in such dire straits after all.)

Now when Clearwater does a public project, it likes for it to be outstanding. And so it was with the plan for the Countryside dog park.

Instead of the typical fenced rectangle with benches around the edges, this 9-acre dog park would have three areas for dogs. The biggest area would have walking trails through a natural wooded area, so dog owners could hike with their canines. A second area would have an exercise yard for dogs, with ramps and hurdles. The third space would be set aside for small dogs.

On Aug. 14, City Council members approved the plan for the $400,000 dog park - unanimously. What could be more American than a place for the people to play with their dogs in the fresh air? It was a quality-of-life decision.

Not everyone agreed. Since the vote, some have criticized the decision. They have wondered how the city could spend $400,000 for a dog park when there are so many human needs going unfunded.

Because of tax cuts mandated by the state Legislature, all local governments in Pinellas are cutting back. Jobs are being eliminated. Programs that provide public transportation, affordable housing and beautification have been reduced or eliminated, library and recreation center hours have been cut back, and outside organizations that depend to some degree on government funding have been told to look elsewhere. Clearwater, for example, had to cut its tax collections by 7 percent to meet the state mandate.

Was this the right time to build a dog park? Some say no.

Others might say this was the perfect time. Families are trimming their personal budgets during these tough economic times, so they will have less to spend on things like vacations, movies and theme parks. They will need free sources of recreation.

What would you have done?

Send your opinion to www.tampabay.com/letters and put "dog park" in the subject line. Or write to Letters to the Editor, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756.

[Last modified August 21, 2007, 00:34:17]


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