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Citizen rally on park closures set for next week

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South County citizens this week began shaping up a protest rally.

By MELODY JAMESON

Disturbed by proposed closure of their neighborhood parks and distrustful of county parks department information, South County citizens this week began shaping up a rally in protest.

About 20 of them, from Balm to Brandon, Ruskin to Gibsonton, met Monday in Brandon with Terry O’Grady, longtime parks athletic programs volunteer and strong advocate of youth after school programs, to organize the multi-community rally.

They set it for 7 p.m., Thursday, August 11, at the Brandon Recreation Center, north of S,R. 60 at Sadie Park, Kingsway and Sadie Street. Weather permitting, the session will be held outdoors, O’Grady said, adding that in the case of an evening rain shower, it will be moved indoors.

South County parents, particularly of school age children, have become increasingly alarmed as Mark Thornton, Hillsborough’s parks and recreation department director, has conducted public meetings around the county to promote his plan to close dozens of community parks, terminating their after-school programs on which many working parents depend for safe youth activities filling the time gap between close of school and end of the work day.

The Thornton plan calls for eliminating the 30 or more community park programs as a cost savings measure at a time of budget deficits and replacing them with activities in 12 larger regional recreation centers spotted around the county, some of them yet to be built. The regional centers also would present new transportation difficulties for many parents.

As the group began dividing tasks, setting up a networking telephone tree, designing flyers and planning media contacts, O’Grady outlined a rally program. The accredited and widely experienced basketball, baseball, football and cheerleading coach who also certifies other coaches said he would like to give those attending the rally a brief history of the county’s parks programs and follow-up with an explanation of what he calls a sustainable approach to maintaining neighborhood parks and their after-school activities.

O’Grady disputes Thornton’s claim that closing community parks and programs represents a savings to taxpayers. Actually, he said, maintaining activities at 27 parks and serving a total of 2040 youngsters countywide, half at a rate of $48 per week and half at a discounted rate of $30 each week for 40 weeks, would produce nearly $3.2 million in revenues. The closely estimated costs involved in keeping the same parks and their programs operating, including salaries, benefits, training and licensing, is $2.531million, he added. In other words, he asserted it is possible to cover all costs and garner an additional $650,000 buffer.

The volunteer coach also noted that it has been difficult to get sound department figures for comparison purposes due to the “limited access to the cost and budget line items” needed.

O’Grady suggested that it is poor money management within the parks department that negatively impacts its budget, pointing to two instances. One, he said, involves budgeting $2 million for refurbishing fairgrounds facilities when the department benefits for only three days out of the year. Another is related to the department’s contribution to a school readiness program in the amount of $400,000 with the expectation of receiving $1.4 million in return. The return actually was $165,000, he said, and ultimately the department’s net loss as the result of its miscalculations came to $404,000.

Thornton’s department, on the other hand, does not agree with O’Grady’s take on the after school programs. Enrollment in the county’s after school activities has declined drastically from a high of nearly 5,300 in 2006 to just 1,882 in 2011, a department written response to O’Grady’s positions stated. And, the department insisted, the after school program is not as important to citizens as O’Grady describes.

The department response predicts the fiscal year 2012 total revenues from the after school program to be $2.096 million and puts the total operating expenses at $2.282 million, producing, therefore, a loss or budget deficit for the program of $186,253.

Acknowledging that the after school programs are “a vital part of the community,” the department responses go on to state that “The County, however, should not be the provider of this program.” Instead, the department’s recommendation is “partnership” with other existing after school organized activity.

As for O’Grady’s complaint about the parks’ budgeted monies spent on fair site infrastructure, Thornton’s department noted “The entire county benefits from having the fair site as a program venue” where the department offers programming for teen agers during three days of the fair run and which is available for rent by citizens the year around.

Regarding losses incurred by the department as part of the readiness program participation, the department admits a recent audit found it had not properly monitored the program waiting list, resulting “in unqualified applicants paying discounted rates to which they were not entitled.” The department corrected the matter by increasing the rates to a higher amount which, in turn, resulted in “many applicants who paid the incorrect discounted rates abandoning the program” rather than pay the added amounts.

O’Grady said he interpreted the department responses as “proving my point.”

The rally, he added, may encourage concerned parents, seniors volunteering at the various parks and citizens interested in the welfare of the next generation to talk with their county commissioners.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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