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ELYSA celebrates new property tax levy
Pinellas Commission opens the door to fund others
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Rob Prosavec, vice president of East Lake Youth Sports Association, left, and Rick Watson, ELYSA president, go over the details June 24 of how the money would be spent if Pinellas County Commissioners approved a quarter mill in ad valorem taxes to fund youth sports.
CLEARWATER – An overflow crowd got what they asked for June 24 when Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously approved a one-quarter mill tax levy to fund a newly created East Lake Recreation Services District.

After the vote, the day’s final item of business, the large audience rose to its feet and cheered. Many shouted out, thank you!

The only East Lake resident to speak against the new tax was Roger Johnson. He pointed out that residents were already dealing with the stormwater tax, which started last year and cost him an extra $267. Property values also are going up, which drives up property taxes.

“In November, you’ll have the tax for light rail,” he continued. “And the fourth and final is East Lake Youth, and they want a quarter mill.”

He said the county should only provide essential services – life and death services that we have to have.

“Kids playing soccer ball is not essential,” he said.

He wanted residents to get a chance to vote on the tax. He said a lot of East Lake residents had already raised their kids and paid the higher fees for them to play sports.

“Voters should decide if they want an extra tax,” he said.

The notion of a second quarter mill in taxes for residents of the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District to pay for youth sports began last year when the commission approved a one-quarter mill to fund East Lake Library. In previous years, East Lake residents had paid a half mill in ad valorem taxes to piggyback onto Palm Harbor’s Library, as part of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative.

Volunteers who operate the East Lake Youth Sports Association requested that the remaining quarter mill be levied to funds its operations, but the request came too late. This year, they made their request early, presenting commissioners with evidence of their need.

It is estimated that as much as $550,000 would flow in from a new municipal service taxing unit funding East Lake Recreation Services District. The money would pay for field maintenance, which is now paid with fees paid by participants. It would be enough to make needed repairs and fund capital improvement projects, including new lacrosse fields as well. ELYSA would become an advisory organization to the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, which would govern the use of the new tax.

For 30 years, ELYSA, a nonprofit organization, has been funded with limited help from county government and more from user fees. Due to the lack of funding, football, Little League, soccer programs were forced to charge higher fees than surrounding municipalities. The high price of youth sports in East Lake placed a burden on parents and created a need for a lot of fundraisers over the years. A quarter mill of dedicated tax revenue would solve many problems and allow for lower fees.

About 19 residents spoke in favor of the new tax. They spoke of the value of providing a place for kids to play, as well as the benefits of character building from playing team sports. Volunteer Mitch Wright, who coaches Little League, talked about the importance to the community.

“Having a safe place to play sports is paramount, to help build character for the kids and the adults and help bring the community together,” he said.

Ann Duncan, wife of former commissioner Ronnie Duncan, talked about the “good investment” youth sports would be to the community. As a real estate consultant and baseball mom, Duncan recognizes the value of having facilities that add to the quality of life.

Gene Davis said it had been 10 years since he had been active in ELYSA and he recalled the early years of the program when people who came to play in East Lake “made fun of us.” He said over the years, they had built and improved their facilities. But it wasn’t enough.

The people voted down a tax to fund youth sports in 1995 and 2000, he said. Then the county provided $500,000 in grant money, which the association turned into $750,000 worth of improvements thanks to donated time by the contractor, he said.

Davis is now an “empty-nester,” so he understands why the people voted down a tax to pay for youth sports in the past. But he supports the tax.

“I want to see my grandkids play on good stuff,” he said.

Holistic approach

Commissioners recognize that approving a separate millage for youth sports in East Lake would open the door for other unincorporated areas to request the same.

Commissioner Susan Latvala pointed out that others areas weren’t as defined as Palm Harbor and East Lake, so she advocated approving the tax for East Lake and then discussing what could be done in other areas. She said the commission had been working on doing something for youth in unincorporated areas of northern Pinellas since she became a commissioner in 2000.

“I want to leave office with that no longer being the case,” she said.

“It’s about quality of life and what we value,” Commissioner Janet Long said. “When the going gets tough and the money gets tight, it is the little kids and elderly on the wrong side of the stick.”

Long questioned how the commission could provide the same opportunity to all. She said parents from Seminole had already reached out for funding. She said kids in Lealman and other areas needed a place to play.

Commission Chair Karen Seel said before the recession hit, the county had used a specific portion of taxes paid by unincorporated residents to provide grants for projects, such as lighting the sports fields in East Lake. The money also was used to reimburse residents for higher fees paid to municipalities to use their recreational facilities. The commission agreed a new plan might be needed going forward.

Seel questioned whether it was time to increase the millage to unincorporated residents.

“This is a good conversation,” she said. “This (East Lake millage) is a precedent. If we do this, we need to do for the rest.”

“This is an investment in the quality of our communities,” Commissioner John Morroni said. “It’s an investment in our kids.”

“Athletics and arts make a difference,” Commissioner Ken Welch agreed. “My only concern is we’re not taking a holistic approach.”

Long asked if something could be done for the coming year.

Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard said he would look at the MSTU contingency fund.

Commissioner Norm Roche suggested delaying the decision on East Lake until the holistic approach could be considered.

Latvala pointed out that the average value of a home in East Lake is $260,000 compared to $150,000 for the rest of the county.

“Other parts of the county can’t pay that kind of money,” she said. “A different kind of program is needed. Seminole may be able to do it, but Lealman and Highpoint is whole different animal.”
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