EAST LAKE — After an hour of presentations and pleas and back-and-forth debating, three little words set off a roar of applause from a packed Pinellas County Courthouse Assembly Room crowd late last month.
“You got it,” said Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Williams Seel, triggering the uproar.
The “you” in that declaration was directed at East Lake residents gathered en masse to downtown Clearwater during the June 24 County Commission meeting.
The “it” referred to what all those people were on hand to support: the creation of a municipal services taxing unit supporting the East Lake Youth Sports Association.
Commissioners and supporters from the 32-year-old youth sports association began putting together a campaign to secure public funding last year. The reasons behind it being that the association's facilities off Keystone Road are in need of renovations and expansion, and to lower participation fees to competitive levels with surrounding organizations.
The association, led by president Rick Watson and vice president Rob Prosavec, created a proposal and quickly began gathering local support. Watson and Prosavec outlined the association's most pressing needs in PowerPoint form during last month's county meeting.
Capital needs, which total more than $1.3 million, include a new soccer field, lighting improvements, irrigation improvements, parking lot repairs, building repairs and a new bathroom and concession stand at the soccer complex. The initial 27-acre complex established in 1982 has six baseball fields, three soccer fields and two football fields. An expansion in 2012 created the nearby East Lake Meadows Complex, where the new soccer field will be built, with 100 acres set aside for recreation by the county.
Also hampering ELYSA's season-to-season operations, the representatives explained, is its current pricing structure for participation. The men displayed a graphic comparing East Lake youth football and baseball pricing structures to six other North Pinellas and South Pasco organizations. Participation in East Lake football is $100 more, on average, than the other locations, and baseball fees are about $66 greater.
“We're at a tipping point,” Prosavec said. “Besides charging the highest registration fees of anyone, we can't, and never will, be able to keep up with the ever-increasing costs of a 30-plus-year-old facility without your help. Without your help these programs will decline.”
ELYSA's proposal, which county commissioners approved 7-0, aims to rectify these issues by establishing the East Lake Recreation Services Municipal Services Taxing Unit that will create a dedicated funding source to youth sports and their facilities by authorizing an ad valorem tax of up to 0.25 mill – 25 cents to every $1,000 of taxable property value. This is the same funding structure utilized by the East Lake Community Library, Palm Harbor Library and CSA Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation.
The boundaries for the new levy, which is expected to generate about $550,000 per year, will mimic those of the existing East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District and last year's new East Lake Library Municipal Services Taxing Unit.
“Taxes are never popular and sometimes they're necessary,” Watson said while lobbying the board. “In this case, just as with the East Lake Library, all the money stays in East Lake and benefits the children of East Lake.”
Funding for youth sports in East Lake has traditionally been generated through fees, grants, private donations and fundraising events.
The new taxing unit will require ELYSA to select and fund an executive director to oversee the public entity and will result in a surplus of $245,000 per year, Prosavec reported. The association's latest success will allow it to eventually – not immediately – check off everything on its laundry list of capital improvements.
“The good news is that we get through all these projects,” Prosavec said. “The bad news is it takes us about six years, but that's something we can live with. We can prioritize those programs.”
Public backing for the proposal was evident at the decisive county meeting, with supporters packing the Assembly Room and two other floors of the Pinellas County Courthouse. It was announced that 10 letters in opposition to the new tax were received by the county in comparison to the 11 letters and three petitions with 538 signatures in favor. Attendance at the actual meeting, though, represented an overwhelming sense of approval, as supporters streamed to the podium during public comment to try and sway the board.
All commissioners largely spoke in favor of the levy, though Commissioner Norm Roche said this action may set a precedence for future requests and board responses.
“I'm not saying it in a negative sense, but establishing that is setting a new precedence,” he said. “As long as we are comfortable that we are establishing a new precedence, then we cannot say no to the next group that stands here.”
Other commissioners weren't overly swayed by Roche's concern and added that this specific form of taxation may not be effective in some other areas with lower property values.
“I was undecided when I came in this evening,” said Commissioner John Morroni. “Yes, I'm concerned about setting a precedent … but I think this is a good way to do it and I will support it.
“You are the community in that area and I'm so leased to see how many people came out tonight to come and tell their government what they would like.”