GIBSONTON — “Our new County Administrator has told us to stop funding a sinking ship,” Mark Thornton, director of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department told a group of about 60 parents at the Gardenville Recreation Center in Gibsonton May 18.
County Administrator Mike Merrill took over as acting administrator in March 2010 and was made administrator in December after the firing of the former administrator, Patricia Bean.
The gathering at Gardenville was part of a series of public meetings held around the county’s 41 recreation centers where Bobbi Davis, of the Children’s Board, gave an overview of the programs suggested to replace the parks programs which have been in place in some local areas for more than 35 years.
The parks that have provided after-school and summer programs for elementary-age children are due to stop these programs in August 2011 to save money. One of them, Balm Park, is closing after this school year ends; without hosting a summer program at all.
Transportation from schools to the centers and hikes in per-child fees have caused enrollment to drop severely during the past four years, except in places where the elementary school is adjacent to the park, like in Riverview and Ruskin.
About five years ago the programs began being cut; first by eliminating bus transportation from schools, without which, enrollment declined so much that many staff positions were eliminated and others were made part time.
Thornton said 110 positions have been cut in his department since 2007.
This is not a parks department issue, Thornton explained. “The schools decide where their buses will go.”
The main suggestions listed by a Roundtable Group – which included the Children’s Board but not the Parks Department- to replace the activities at the parks is the schools OST Program, which is already in operation in many elementary schools. This program cares for kids whose parents work longer than school hours.
Other ideas are to rent the buildings out to organizations like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls clubs.
One after another, parents spoke to the problems that will be created for their children if the county cannot keep the parks recreational programs in tact.
Edward Delgado, who has four children at the Apollo Beach Recreation Center, said he has checked out OST programs at several schools and found children seated at tables coloring or watching television in the cafeteria. “They get hardly any PE in school anymore, and now they’re taking away their only exercise?” Delgado asked.
Olga Hatheld pointed out that Boys and Girls clubs are not available in the South County area and that the suggestion that children attend YMCA won’t work here either because of distance, transportation and mainly, that many families in South County can’t afford to join the Y.
“You say we will be subsidized (fees for vouchers) no matter where our children go but we turn in paperwork for that and get no answer,” said Chavaun Bussey. “And OST is closed every Friday. What do we do then?”
The way it is now, parents get a discount at park level if their children qualify.
Kia Parker and Wunpen Pierre said they had children participating in things like cheerleading, soccer, hockey, dance and all kinds of arts and crafts. “My child had karate for $6. You can’t tell me these others will offer things like this for fees we can afford,” Pierre, who works in a corporate office in Tampa and gets off late, said.
Judith Francis was curious to know if any of the people on the Roundtable who had come up with the suggestions had children in parks programs. “What’s going to happen is that we are going to have to leave our children alone to keep our jobs and then some state agency will come knocking on our doors to take them away from us for neglect,” Francis said passionately, and then had to leave the room.
Carol Phillips, a school employee, pointed out that a group she is part of, Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton, raised much of the money to improve the center at Gardenville a few years back. “We did this on our own,” she explained. “Then we go to the school board many times about the busing issue and they will not answer us.”
Jeanette Doyle, representing the Apollo Beach Woman’s Club, said her group has supported the Apollo Beach Rec Center’s Adopt a Camper and scholarship programs to keep kids in the program for four years. “We donated $1,400 in 2011, $1,200 in 2010, and $1,200 in 2009 to Adopt a Camper, and scholar-shipped needy kids in for two years as well,” Doyle said. “We want to know what we can do. We want to know how we can make the county see that we need these programs to remain in place.”
Sherry Kotula, the employee at Gibsonton Elementary School who used to coordinate the buses that took kids to their after-school program at Gardenville Recreation Center, was able to explain several things in a calm, understandable manner.
“I know most of you don’t want your kids in OST, and I agree, the parks have more to offer. But the teachers at Gibsonton anyway, do the best they can at OST. They took children out to make a butterfly garden. They get them moving whenever possible. They work with what they have but they just don’t have enough to work with.”
Kotula also said that until two years ago the school system made an exception for Gardenville and allowed them to be bused even though they were out of the district. “We are on the wrong side of the street. If we were just across the street, they would take our kids,” she said. “They won’t make the exception any longer.
He said that the transportation problem dropped the attendance, which made the parks department drop staff. Then with figures showing the attendance drop, his department could no longer justify the $8 million of the department’s $45 million budget it takes to run the programs.
Attendance drops are not evident at Ruskin or Riverview parks because they are right next to the elementary schools they serve and the children walk. It is where distances prevent walking that problems arise.
Thornton said the school system offered the department “their old buses a couple of years ago.”
“But we are not going to go into the busing business,” he said. “We simply can’t afford to pay for drivers and break-downs and repairs.”
Doyle leaned over to me and said, “It looks like a real entrepreneur could set up a fleet of vans and take care of this if the school board is so resistant to busing.”
Doyle was referring to the vans that transport the children from private child care centers, such as the Apollo Beach Racquet and Fitness Center and Its Kidz Time in Riverview and others.
“They get their kids there. It seems like someone could make a business out of this,” Doyle said.
The parks department has presented a plan to County Commissioners to consolidate the 41 parks and rec centers into 12 central centers. But they will not be in the “childcare business any longer,” Thornton said. “We need to get into the recreation business. Maybe have a program for soccer one day a week, dance another. But parents would have to sign up for each thing to keep their children at the centers all week,” he said.
But the majority of parents said that would cost them much more money, and they could be left without child care on certain days if classes were full.
“What are we expected to do, leave them home alone?” Bussey asked.
As part of her presentation about alternatives, Davis explained that each parent whose child is on free lunch at school may apply for subsidy with an after-school program and then may use that voucher anywhere they choose. But a large group of parents said they had filled out paperwork which was either never sent in or never returned.
The parks department was the subject of a recent audit by county budget staff that showed where a $900,000 shortfall had been created by this very problem.
Davis explained that federal dollars will match county dollars for these subsidy vouchers reported to Tallahassee.
By making “regional centers” the county will get more and spend less, she explained.
“In one place in Tampa,” Thornton said, “There are seven centers that could be combined into one.”
In mostly rural South County, that is not possible, parents pointed out.
The main question was “What can we still do to prevent losing our parks programs?”
So the day after the meeting, I called the county and got answers to that.
Kevin Brickey in the County Commissioners office where agendas are kept, said that the Commissioners – who have already been presented with the budgets from all departments, including parks and recreation- will vote on the issue Thursday, Sept. 22 at a public meeting that will begin at 6 p.m. at BOCC headquarters at 601 E. Kennedy Blvd. Tampa, which is County Center.
“People may speak at that meeting before the vote,” Brickey said. “They should be there at least an half an hour early to sign in to speak.”
The standard time to talk is three minutes, but if there is a large group wanting to talk on the same subject, extra time is allowed for one or two speakers who may be chosen to represent the entire group, he said.
How much extra time, I asked? Ten minutes? Twenty?
“That will be entirely up to the Commissioners depending upon how many people attend and how long the public comment time of the meeting takes,” he said.
Meanwhile parents can hold a petition drive over the summer or send mail to Commissioners urging them to cut other things instead of programs that affect children. Emails are not recommended as they can be considered spam automatically by computers with virus protection.
“As a county, we are really lacking in the things we do for our children,” said Vicki Hummer at the meeting. “And when they get to middle school and high school it is even worse. They cut things for our children every time.”
Others in the crowd brought up the fact that children left alone instead of in programs to channel their energy into activities could become problems for the county’s law enforcement in the future. u