Pinellas County survey shows county residents open to Fort DeSoto entry fee
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05/17/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Local governments have been making tough decisions in recent years due to shrinking revenue streams. Many have had to cut services, staff, and programs with little public input. Last month, some Pinellas County residents got to weigh in on the debate on which parts of the county government they could live without, and which should stay. A consulting firm conducted a phone survey of hundreds of residents, and some of their findings were surprising. For example, researcher Sarah Lindemuth said most of the 267 survey respondents are willing to pay an entrance fee at Fort De Soto.

"66.3 percent were in support of an entrance fee of various values. If they said that they were interested or willing to pay an entrance fee they were asked whether they were willing to pay an $8 entrance fee, and that made up about 44 percent of the sample."

Most people favored a fee of five dollars or less to get into the popular park. About 36 percent said they’d pay a $75 annual fee for the park. Commissioner Norm Roche said that says something about who goes to Fort De Soto, and how often.

"That can lead you to an understanding of how many average these folks were visiting annually. Obviously not enough to save money by a 75 but, 'okay, I'll hit it once for 8 bucks'. I think that's an important distinction there to keep in mind."

The survey was conducted over ten days. Over a thousand people were contacted by phone, and 267 people took part. The county also conducted an online survey. Researchers treated those results differently since they couldn’t control the demographic proportions of the respondents. Lindemuth said researchers dialed numbers at random that had a 727 area code.

Other questions in the survey attempted to gauge which services Pinellas residents found vital and those not so important. Public safety got the bulk of the vote on areas to cut first, but Lindemuth said this appears to directly conflict with the question of what people don’t want to see cut.

"When asked what to cut last, you'll notice that public safety is also at the top so I think that that's probably causing some questions in your mind right now."

She said this happened because of the way government services were grouped. Lindemuth said the biggest number of participants wanted to see animal control cut first, but also said they want to preserve emergency management as much as possible. She said the survey showed a lot of real division in the community over services that often get roped into politics.

"The two controversial service areas that I list here are county parks and indigent health care. I list those because they were both the top 2nd and 3rd mentioned under cut first and cut last."

Lindemuth said areas that got more “cut first” votes than “cut last” included code enforcement, homeless assistance, building permits and the Heritage Museum. She said one service category many want to keep is a little surprising.

"The very high priority responses were related strongly to environmental and preservation categories."

Pinellas faces an estimated $21.5 million deficit million for next year. In recent years the county has had to cut spending to bare bones, and is currently grappling with how to chop even more out of the budget without harming essential government services. The April survey was a way to get the public’s point of view on the issue. County Commissioner Susan Latvala said the only problem with that is some members of the public might not know where the harshest reductions have already taken place.

"There was a high number of people that thought administration should be cut. Been there, done that. This is one of the first places we went. So you have to balance all that with what we know and what's already taken place."

County Administrator Bob LaSala said Pinellas is the first county in the country to conduct such a survey as it slogs through another tough budget year. The survey period may be over, but members of the public can always weigh in on the process during public comment sessions at county commission meetings or contacting their commissioners directly.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Pinellas County

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