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Residents Plead: Don’t Cut Recreation, After-School Services (VIDEOS)

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said after a July 21 public hearing he is confident the plan to close recreation centers and cut after-school programming will not be adopted as proposed.

County commissioners will vote to keep after-school programs at a majority, but not all, county recreation centers, according to  Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

“It’s doable, it’s just a matter of how much more funding it will require,” Hagan said after an emotionally charged public hearing at the Florida State Fairgrounds on July 21. “The current model is not sustainable but I feel confident there will be changes to the current proposal. We’ve just got to work harder to make the budget work.”

The calls for mothballing 25 to 30 recreation centers — and the after-school programs at those centers — leaving 10 to 12 centers open.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he's sure his colleagues will back Hagan's proposal — if the funding is there.

"There isn't a commissioner up there who wouldn't support it but we have to find the funding source," said the District 4 commissioner, who represents much of the Greater Brandon area.

Billed as a chance for residents to talk about any part of the county’s proposed budget, the hearing drew more than 200 people. But overwhelmingly there was one thing on the minds of the 65 speakers who took to the microphone: Don’t cut the parks and recreation budget, and especially not the after-school programs.

“I know firsthand how important it is to keep our kids involved in after-school programs,” said Candice Johnson, as assistant principal at McLane Middle School. "I am here to beg commissioners to give the funding to the parks and recreation department for these wonderful programs.”

Valrico’s Peggy Pruitt warned commissioners against short-term thinking.

“After-school programs are worth the investment,” she said. "My kids are worth the investment. They love it there. The coaches care about them. [Closing the program] will devastate the children.”

Pruitt and others are angry the county is considering cutting after-school programs and closing recreation centers as part of budget cutbacks.

Faced with a fourth straight year of declining property tax revenue in an anemic real estate market, County Administrator Michael S. Merrill has proposed stiff cuts to the county budget.

The county's recommended budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year totals $2.955 billion, a hefty cut to last year’s compared  $3.521 billion spending plan.

Overall, the proposed budget would cut 449 county jobs, eliminate services at 25 to 30 of the county’s 40 recreation centers, end some after-school programs and chop money for transportation projects. There would be few cuts in law enforcement and fire protection.

County workers, many of whom face pink slips next month under the proposed budget, were also out in force at the July 21 public hearing.

Glenda Hoxit of Riverview, a 22-year veteran of parks and recreation, said maintenance workers were getting short-changed in the budget.

“We do a lot more than just cut grass,” she said. "Who is the first one out there when there is a hurricane? We are. If we are laid off the parks will become places for gangs, the homeless and sex offenders, because when we are out there now we report that.”

While some speakers sympathized with the county’s budget woes, cuts to the budget of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department were too close to the bone, they said.

“You have a difficult job but if we are truly going to invest in our future you have the opportunity to do that tonight,” Riverview’s Joe Perez told commissioners.

Closing after-school programs would lead to higher costs for everyone in the long run, said Kristin Bogt-Wilson of Brandon, who presented a petition signed by 300 Eastern Hillsborough County residents in support of after-school programs.

“You will see more juvenile crime, more crime and more child abductions,” she said. "Please don’t tear families apart by closing this program."

Austin Kennedy, a 16-year-old volunteer at the Brandon Recreation Center on East Sadie Street, said closing the after-school program is a recipe for trouble among his age group.

“If kids don’t have somewhere to go they are going to find trouble,” he said. "You will see a lot more kids getting into crime, drinking and drugs.”

Kim Herman of Riverview said the after-school program at the Brandon Recreation Center doesn’t just keep her children off the street.

“It keeps them on track and focused,” she said. "It helps me as a parent. You couldn’t ask for a better park staff.”

One of the youngest speakers of the night, Janessa McMillan, 12, had a simple message for commissioners.

“I need the after-school program,” said McMillan, a Brandon resident. “It’s like family to me.”

You can view the proposed budget in its entirety on the county's web site.  

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