Just in time for summer vacation, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has proposed reducing the cost of using the city's parks and recreation programs.
Former Mayor Pam Iorio raised park fees to help balance the city's budget just as the economy soured. That decision added $1 million to the parks budget, but it also priced thousands of people out of the park system.
Despite facing his own $30 million budget deficit, Buckhorn says lowering fees will increase park revenues by encouraging more people — particularly children looking for after-school and summer programs — to use them.
The plan would need city council's approval.
"The children who are in our parks facilities this summer are children who will not be at risk to the temptation of the streets," Buckhorn said Monday.
Yes, the change will cost the city some revenue this summer, he said.
"But, for me, the short-term loss of revenue is directly proportional to the long-term cost of incarceration," Buckhorn said. "Because, if these kids aren't having good influences in their lives, then they're having bad influences."
The city's park system has room for more people, said Greg Bayor, the newly installed parks director.
The system draws most of its funding from property taxes. As falling property values have pinched the city budget, parks have felt the effects.
The parks budget has fallen from almost $52 million four years ago to $42 million this year. Staffing also has been reduced.
At the same time, customers have had to pick up more of the operating costs. Fees now make up almost 7 percent of the parks budget, up from 4.6 percent in 2009.
In 2010, less than a year after raising fees, Iorio scaled back fees for summer camps, after-school programs and pools. But she left some fees, such as the $115-a-year charge for nonresidents, intact.
Now, Buckhorn plans to reduce that to $30 per year for individuals and $100 per year for families in hopes of luring more people from outside Tampa to use the city's facilities.
Nonresidents make up about 14 percent of the 8,562 "rec cards" the city has sold this year. The cards allow people to use city pools and parks.
"Our parks are the foundation of our strength as a city," Buckhorn said in a prepared statement. "I want those parks to be welcoming and user-friendly for residents and nonresidents alike."
Raising nonresident "rec card" fees produced "a loss of community" between city and county residents, Bayor said.
City Councilman Frank Reddick, whose East Tampa district felt the brunt of earlier fee increases, applauded the mayor's proposal to reduce fees for shelters, athletic leagues and gymnasium rentals.
"That will be very advantageous, particularly for some of the people in my district," Reddick said.
He was less certain about lowering fees for nonresidents, who don't pay taxes to support the city's park system.
"That's where my apprehension comes into play," Reddick said.