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Hillsborough Parks Department discloses strategic plan

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image Area parents listened as Mark Thornton, head of Hillsborough’s Parks,Recreation and Conservation Department,reviewed the division’s strategic plan for putting its numerous budget battered programs on firmer financial footing. Melody Jameson Photo

Facing reductions in funding, Hillsborough’s parks is unveiling a strategic plan for survival.

By MELODY JAMESON

Facing radical reductions in funding further unbalanced by rising costs, Hillsborough’s parks administration is unveiling a strategic plan for survival and eventual growth.

In a series of public meetings – three of them in the South County - department personnel, including Parks, Recreation and Conservation Area Director Mark Thornton, are over viewing the proposal for community leaders and department services consumers.

The next session is set for 6:30 PM, Wednesday, June 22, at the Riverview Civic Center. The last scheduled meeting in this area is called for the same time on Thursday, June 23, in the Ruskin Recreation Center.

The first of the South County sessions was held last week in the Gardenville Recreation Center where about 50 area residents – many of them young working parents with school age youngsters still requiring supervision – absorbed review of the cutbacks stoically, but not without some complaint.

The proposal rests heavily on consolidating programs in fewer facilities, a concept almost certain, at least in the short term, to burden some families with additional costs, increased transportation problems and loss of services relied on.

With broad brush strokes, Thornton suggested substantial budgetary savings could be realized by consolidating the county’s 42 community centers to create 12 large, regional recreational facilities. Such a move would maintain approximately the same square footage devoted to various programs but allow reduction of operational and staffing requirements. It would utilize three existing regional centers and require adding or expanding nine more, he said.

Two of the South County facilities listed for possible expansion are Gardenville and Ruskin, Thornton told the group, enhancing “the quality of programs for a more diverse age group.” The siting plan for the regional centers would put each within a five to 15-minute drive for all parents in each service area, he stated.

The resulting decrease in operational and staff personnel would save an estimated $7.5 million annually, the director estimated.

Another component of the strategic plan involves vending services for maintenance of athletic field facilities. By engaging local companies experienced in lawn maintenance to do the field maintenance work, the county may be able to save as much as $2 million per year while also markedly improving maintenance services at the 271 fields in 72 locations across the county, Thornton said.

In addition, the department is considering development of eco-tourism activities in the regional parks in order to generate revenue. These include improving camping facilities, arranging for canoe or kayak rentals and establishing camping cabins in parks such as E.G. Simmons, the director noted.

County residents are attached to their natural resource parks, he added, generally accepting the user fee schedule created in 2009 and overwhelmingly approving a $200 million bond issue for environmental lands acquisition a year earlier.

The challenge, he indicated, is keeping facilities and features along with maintaining the core mission – open space, programs for families, special events that celebrate the cultural and historical heritage plus meeting needs assessments – while implementing operational efficiencies that lead to improved service levels and cost savings.

Over its 45-year history, the department has grown from a few athletic fields for activities such as local Little League baseball and a small number of conservation areas to a system involving more than 70,000 acres of land, 50 sports complexes, 42 staffed community centers, 100 parks offering multiple recreational opportunities and an award-winning conservation program, Thornton said. But, he added, not all of it was instituted with knowledge of how to financially sustain it, and the picture further was complicated by a severe financial recession reducing tax revenues.

Suggesting, though, that the most needed programs may not be targeted and tailored for the areas where they are most needed, parents of young children, many of them depending on after school programs at the various recreational centers, complained in frustration about the loss of school system bussing to take their youngsters to staffed facilities.

Others, such as Jeanette Doyle, of Apollo Beach, suggested that eliminating some recreational facilities in order to beef up others only pits one community against another.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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