Recreation fees spur discussion
By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000
For years, Pinellas County's government counted on the good will of city governments to provide recreation services for unincorporated residents.
But as some cities raise recreation fees for non-city residents, one county commissioner said this might be the time to work with city governments to reduce the financial burden on residents of unincorporated areas.
"We're going to have to see how we can come up with a solution," said Commissioner Calvin Harris.
Harris thinks the county could create partnerships with cities by either giving municipal governments "grants" to allow non-residents to use their facilities or create a system to cut costs for unincorporated residents.
The county does not give money to city governments for recreation facilities.
Earlier this month, Seminole city officials talked about raising its fees for non-residents from $45 a year to $70 and removing the $100 family rate. There is no such rate for city residents. Thursday, council members decided to delay the increase until March, when the new Seminole Recreation Center opens.
Last week, shuffleboard players in Clearwater signed a petition demanding that city remove the $30 fee non-residents must pay to use city facilities.
The Greater Largo Little League has been in a dispute with Largo officials over higher fees the city proposed for unincorporated residents.
To play Little League, each child must buy a recreation card from the city. Largo residents are charged $3.50 for the year while non-residents must pay an annual fee of $25. City residents also must pay a $5 youth athletic fee. Non-residents are charged $20.
"It's really divided our Little League," said board member Charlie Aldrich.
League officials approached Harris about the situation. Harris' children played Little League baseball, and he said he does not want the children to suffer.
"We don't want something like that to stand in the way of the growth and development of kids," he said.
Harris started to think about the situation several years ago when discussions began about renovating the Omni Center, a multipurpose recreation facility in Ridgecrest. Many children in that neighborhood come from low-income families and could not afford to play at a nearby recreation center in Largo.
Harris said he hopes to talk about the problem at a workshop sometime next year. He has not talked to fellow commissioners about the idea, he said.
The county traditionally has relied on cities to provide recreational services.
"It was never an issue before because cities never made it an issue before," Harris said.
Many residents of unincorporated areas say the cities are unfair in proposing steep fees for non-residents.
Michael Rici, 53, an ordained minister who lives near Largo, has three children who play Little League. Rici said he cannot afford the higher fees.
"I just don't understand the purpose," he said of Largo's policy. "They are doing an undue burden on a lot of people. They are putting a strain on the league and the city is going to lose in the end."
Rici has even thought of rallying Little League parents in unincorporated Pinellas to create their own league, which would work out a deal with a college to use fields.
"I just don't like getting my arm twisted," he said.
Largo's Recreation and Parks director Cathy Santa says cities are not the bad guys in this dispute.
City residents pay taxes that finance the upkeep of fields and recreation centers, Santa said. Charging non-residents more to use those services is the only way to be fair to city residents, Santa says.
"Why should Clearwater build more soccer fields when more than 50 percent of the players live in Oldsmar, Palm Harbor or any other city?" Santa asked.
Concerned that more people who were using Largo's fields were non-residents, Santa called other recreation directors in Pinellas County to meet to discuss the situation. That was 11/2 years ago.
The discussion has expanded to other shared problems such as dog parks and smoking at outdoor recreational facilities.
"We're using it as an opportunity to discuss common issues and how we can help each other," Santa said.
Group members include recreation directors from Clearwater, Dunedin, Oldsmar, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, Seminole, Tarpon Springs and the Long Center. They now meet every three months, Santa said.
County parks officials have taken part in the discussions. Santa thinks the county has gotten the message about the need to play a larger role in where people play in Pinellas County.
"There is a need for recreation fields in unincorporated areas or reimbursement to cities for non-residents to use our fields," she said.
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