What to do about fees?

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Thursday, March 4, 2010

TAMPA —The complaints come from senior citizens and the parents of children in poor neighborhoods. Increased park fees, they say, price them out of programs they have depended on for years.

Council member John Dingfelder on Thursday offered a solution: A new $1 monthly tax charged to every property owner in Tampa.

Dingfelder suggested modeling the tax after a $1 stormwater fee that netted the city $2 million a year.

The money could be earmarked specifically for programs for children and seniors, he said, and would generate more money than the $1.2 million annually the parks department expects to generate with the new fees.

He suggested putting the proposal on the ballot, either as a straw poll or a binding referendum, during the city's elections in March 2011.

"I think this community would pass it. I think this community recognizes that our children and our seniors deserve it," he said. "I don't believe it's burdensome."

Other council members backed the idea by a 4-1 vote, with council members Tom Scott and Joseph Caetano absent. City attorneys are scheduled to bring draft ballot language to the council in 30 days.

Council member Mary Mulhern cast the lone dissenting vote, jokingly referring to the concept as the "Dingfelder parks tax proposal."

Mulhern said the election is too far off and the problem needs to be addressed immediately.

"I was a single mom. I couldn't wait a year and a half to find somewhere I could afford to send my daughter," she said.

At the request of parks director Karen Palus, the council voted last year to increase park fees. Among the changes: People who live outside the city now must pay $115 a year to use Tampa recreation facilities. City residents pay $15. In the past, the charge was $12 a year for everyone.

Fees for after-school programs jumped from $12 a year to $25 a week, and the cost of summer programs jumped to $55 a week.

Since the new fees went into effect in October, enrollment in after-school programs has dropped from 1,700 students to 784.

"This is a crisis," Mulhern said. "We need to look at these fees, and we need to change them and we need to find money in the budget to do that."

She told Santiago Corrada, the city's administrator for neighborhood services, that he should read the e-mails council members have received from residents who can't afford the fees.

"There's something wrong with your priorities," she told him.

Corrada, though, said he and parks officials are on the side of residents, whose voices were drowned out a couple years ago by those screaming for their property taxes to "drop like a rock." That led to state-mandated property tax reform.

"What dropped like a rock was our general revenue fund that supports your parks and recreation department," he said.

The city's fees are still less than most other after-school and summer programs.

"These fees that we instituted were not pulled out of thin air," he said. "They were thoughtfully put into place."

Council members also directed Corrada and city attorneys to work with independent contractors who teach tennis, yoga, tae kwon do and other classes to come up with new agreements that will satisfy city legal requirements, as well as contractors' concerns.

Long-time instructors have complained that new contracts devised by the parks department cost them money and saddle them with too much liability for accidents.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.


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