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    County may have say in rec fee debate

    A county commissioner says he wants to help local cities deal with the demand for service by those who live outside of city limits.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000


    For years, Pinellas County's government counted on the goodwill 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, and individual recreation departments respond to the demands placed on their facilities by non-residents in different ways.

    Although Palm Harbor is not incorporated, it does have its own parks and recreation department, which is financed by a property tax that Palm Harbor residents have imposed on themselves.

    Interim Palm Harbor parks and recreation director Terry Lannon said Palm Harbor charges people who live outside the taxing district a 25 percent surcharge.

    Non-residents make up about 30 percent of program participants, and the surcharge brings in an additional $3,000 per year, Lannon said. That money goes toward overhead and program expenses.

    Non-resident participation has not been a burden on programs, he said. In fact, non-residents are needed to fill out the rosters for some adult athletic leagues. The surcharge ensures non-residents share the load with Palm Harbor taxpayers.

    In Oldsmar, the city will begin issuing recreation cards and charging higher user fees to recreation program participants who don't live in the city next month. Under the plan, residents will be charged a $3 annual fee for the card and non-residents will have to pay $50 a year for the card.

    "Every city in the county is doing it," said Oldsmar Parks and Recreation director Lynn Rives. "It's not anything new and it's basically to help offset some of the expenses of the non-residents. They are getting to use our facilities and the city is paying for it."

    For example, 40 to 60 percent of the players in the youth sports leagues that use city fields at Canal Park do not live in Oldsmar. The city plans to offer a $20 athletic season card for non-residents who play in sports leagues. City leaders also decided in November to let City Manager Bruce Haddock negotiate the terms of the fees with each league.

    Tarpon Springs has no immediate plans to raise fees for non-residents, city finance director Arie Walker said.

    But other communities are struggling with the issue. Recently, shuffleboard players in Clearwater signed a petition demanding that the city remove the $30 fee non-residents must pay to use city facilities. Seminole officials have talked about raising fees for non-residents, and the issue has pitted Largo City Hall against the Greater Largo Little League.

    Little 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 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 in Little League. Rici said he cannot afford the higher fees.

    "They are doing an undue burden on a lot of people," he said. "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 said city residents pay taxes that finance the upkeep of fields and recreation centers. Charging non-residents more to use those services is the only way to be fair to city residents, she said.

    "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.

    - Staff writers Robert Farley, Katherine Gazella and Ed Quioco contributed to this report.

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