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For county parks and programs, 'it’s not over!'

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image Tyler (left) and big sister, Alana, showed off their sign leaving no doubt about their sentiments. Melody Jameson Photo

A county parks advocate last week exhorted a South County standing-room-only crowd to action with the battle cry “It’s not over.”

By MELODY JAMESON

With the fervor of a country revival preacher, a county parks advocate last week exhorted a South County standing-room-only crowd to action with the battle cry “It’s not over.”

This week, it wasn’t. At least two county commissioners were working separately toward resolution of the very public dilemma stemming from a county parks and recreation department plan to save money in a tight budget year by restructuring the neighborhood parks network and its programs. One of them is putting a plan on the table that would retain at least two South County parks.

The dilemma for working parents who depend on after school programs conducted at neighborhood parks began to develop several months ago when the parks department director, Mark Thornton, unveiled a plan purported to cut costs which would effectively close a number of community parks, leaving only empty, locked, unstaffed buildings and unsupervised playing fields.

Thornton’s concept would replace the supervised after-school programs at those parks for which parents paid on a per-child basis with a broader range of activities conducted in a dozen regional recreation centers scattered across the county. It would involve, additionally, county partnership with the public school system’s after-school programming as well as with YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs.

The plan also would require that many working parents arrange either specific new transportation for their children from their schools to new centers or engage other types of after-school care – both leading to greater family expense.

County officials have pegged annual costs of the after-school programs in neighborhood parks at close to $2.3 million. None have been able to pinpoint the dollar savings represented by implementing the Thornton regional centers concept. Most of the proposed regional centers have not yet been built.

Others openly dispute the county figures as well as the feasibility of county involvement in other systems. One of them is Terry O’Grady, a long time parks volunteer and athletics coach, who initiated the citizens’ rally last week in Brandon.

O’Grady has asserted the annual after school programs in the parks can be operated for less than the department states and even provide a buffer of over $500,000 if the programs were properly marketed encouraging a few more youngsters to sign on. As for linking a county program with those fielded by other institutions, he has suggested sufficient space is not available.

He said this and more in a fiery speech to some 400 parents crowded into the Brandon Community Center Thursday . He told them the cost-per-child in the after school programs – publicly set at $135.00 each – is erroneous as shown by the department’s own calculations. He called attention to the department’s admitted errors in calculating program fees last year which resulted in a net loss. He pointed out the department budget calls for $2 million spent at the county fair grounds for three days worth of benefit.

He suggested parents vote out of office next year the commissioners elected to represent them who do not hear them and fail to work for a satisfactory resolution of the dilemma the parks department has generated. Five of the seven sitting commissioners, including two representing the South and East County, must stand for re-election in 2012. “Are you listening, commissioners?,” O’Grady shouted to ringing applause.

One of them has been tuned in. Ken Hagan, one of three at-large commissioners serving the entire county rather than a single district, told The Observer this week he’s trying to pull together a plan that would keep 19 neighborhood parks functioning. That number, combined with 11 regional centers, would produce a total of 30 sites around the county where after-school programming could be conducted. Hagan’s “hybrid” program also would involve partnership with the school district, Ys, and the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Among the 19 South County park sites retained under Hagan’s proposal would be Bethune in Wimauma and Apollo Beach. A newer rec center at Gardenville has been slated as a regional center site.

“Most of us agree,” Hagan noted, “the current program is not sustainable in the long term” On the other hand, he added, “I feel the program recommended by staff and tentatively approved is woefully inadequate.” The next step, he said, is adjusting the structure of fees parents pay for their children’s participation in order to encourage increased enrollment. There is “ a direct correlation between user fees and declining enrollments,” he noted.

Hagan, who is not up for re-election next year, said he plans to lay out his proposal for other commissioners during their scheduled workshop on Wednesday, August 24. No public comment is accepted during board workshops. Hagan, whose experience with the parks system spans his own youthful participation plus coaching as an adult and as the parent of a young participant, said his outlook is “cautiously optimistic.”

 Fellow at-large commissioner Kevin Beckner said this week he, too, is studying the various related issues closely. Although he was one of four commissioners voting recently in support of the Thornton plan, he emphasized his objective is to ensure that every child who needs it has acceptable after-school supervision and “I’m still assessing it.”

His office, he added, is maintaining a map of the county, pinpointing locations of all after-school sites of all types. “I’m most concerned now about the South County,” he said.

Beckner also pointed out “we need to do a better job with communications” related to the parks issues. Suggesting that misinformation is clouding the matter, he said he sees a need to get factual information about all the aspects, from program locations and costs to space availability and long term savings, into the hands of Hillsborough County parents.

The next opportunities for public comment to commissioners on parks issues will be the board’s forthcoming budget public hearing on August 31 and its regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 8.

South County citizens can email or telephone their representatives as follows:

District 1 Commissioner Sandy Murman, 813-272-5470, Murmans@hillsboroughcounty.org
District 4 Commissioner Al Higginbotham, 813-272-5740, Higginbothama@hillsboroughcounty.org
At-large commissioner Kevin Beckner, 813-272-5730, Becknerk@hillsboroughcounty.org
At large Commissioner Ken Hagan, 813-272-5725, Hagank@hillsboroughcounty.org

Murman also is scheduled to conduct a “community office hours” session beginning at 11 a.m., Friday (August 19) at the SouthShore Regional Library.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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