PALM HARBOR – Palm Harbor Community Services Agency board members have begun the process of bringing the East Lake Youth Sports Association, or ELYSA, under their wing.
A month ago, board members of the agency, also known as PHCSA, speculated that the Pinellas County commissioners probably wouldn’t grant ELYSA the new property tax levy it had requested. They joked that they wouldn’t have a choice in the matter if the commissioners decided to give them oversight of the volunteer association, and they questioned how sound the plans were for spending the proposed tax revenue stream.
But on July 16, the board squared with the new reality: as of Oct. 1, ELYSA will become the fourth entity it oversees. And, at least for the first year, the structure of that new entity won’t look anything like that of Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation, commonly referred to as CSA Palm Harbor.
PHCSA board members had their first look at the ELYSA budget July 16 and balked at how dissimilar it was, even in format, to its Palm Harbor equivalent.
“If this board is going to vote on a budget, this is not enough information,” PHCSA board member Elliot Stern said.
The budget didn’t spell out all of its revenue sources, namely, the three sports leagues that, up until now, have entirely funded the association. Board members also questioned several budget lines, such as almost $152,000 spent on “outsourcing” mowing and turf care though a contractor.
Stern questioned why the structure of Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation wasn’t used as a model for East Lake and why the Palm Harbor director, Erica Lynford, hadn’t been a bigger part of drafting the skeleton budget. Board member Terry Haas agreed with the idea.
“I think we have a model that works. That’s why I was just kind of surprised that this budget was so dramatically different,” Haas said.
ELYSA vice president Rob Posavec, sitting in the audience of the meeting, interjected.
“With all due respect, (the budget is) exactly what I presented to the Board of County Commissioners on three separate occasions,” he said. “Had I known that there were these types of questions, I could have come and presented that and explained exactly how we’ve operated in the past.”
Unlike Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation, fees charged to the Little League baseball, football and soccer leagues pay for everything from turf care to electricity. The reason ELYSA sought tax funding was to lower those fees, which currently are much higher than their neighboring equivalents, Posavec said. Eventually, the association would like to move to a model where the leagues pay much less to use fields that are maintained by a central organization.
But for now, the three leagues are each their own nonprofit organization. The electricity bills are in their respective names, not that of ELYSA. Volunteers with the leagues rake the fields if they want them raked. Even basic purchases aren’t handled the same way, like dirt for the fields – an expense Lynford tried to point to as a similar budget line item for both recreation organizations. But the leagues don’t pay ELYSA to purchase dirt on their behalf.
“They buy their own dirt,” Posavec said.
ELYSA didn’t have a problem with reporting its budget in a format that allowed PHCSA to compare it to the other entities, he said. But the leagues would still be doing the “lion’s share” of the operation.
“We don’t want to change to become just like Palm Harbor, just because. We want to maintain our identity,” Posavec said.
The differences will be the topic of conversation in the coming months, said PHCSA attorney Andy Salzman.
“It’s going to take us a while to get you what you need in a way that you want it, but it’s an ongoing process,” he said.
The agency is not new to taking on new responsibilities. The Palm Harbor Community Services Agency originally was formed to oversee only the Palm Harbor library and recreation special taxing districts. When East Lake Community Library was built without its own tax revenue, the county charged PHCSA to oversee it as a branch of the Palm Harbor Library.
In the past year, CSA Palm Harbor has taken over the operation of the county-owned special event venues White Chapel and Harbor Hall. That new responsibility started as “one piece of paper” and has evolved to a working, sustainable operation, PHCSA chair Rex Haslam said.
East Lake library, once a lightning rod of us-versus-them contention within the Palm Harbor agency, now functions as a cooperative and equivalent entity despite its geographical difference. Since last year, it has command of its own property tax revenue, a quarter mill – the same amount the East Lake Recreation District will collect in the new fiscal year.
Marguerite Smirlis, who was a PHCSA board member previously when East Lake library was being brought on board, assured newer board members that the relationship with ELYSA would develop in much the same way.
“It’s something that’s going to evolve,” she said.
“If you knew what East Lake library was when we first got them, from where we are today, you’d be shocked. Now, it’s working like a doll,” he said. “We’ll get there.”
The ELYSA board understood that the county expected some changes right away, Posavec said. For one, the ELYSA board itself will become an advisory board to PHCSA. Board members would be involved in seeking out and recommending a part-time director to run the association. But the new hire would be a PHCSA employee, and it will be the PHCSA board who approves the final decision, hopefully before Oct. 1.
The ELYSA board will be working on the scope of the new job in the coming months, Posavec said. It will be based on the Palm Harbor recreation director’s job, but tweaked.
Stern said he didn’t mind the differences between the organizations, but didn’t want them the focus of discussions moving forward.
“I don’t want to see a we-versus-them environment. I want to see a cooperative effort,” he said.
It was a sentiment Haslam echoed when he met with the ELYSA board the week before, to explain PHCSA’s role and how it operates. Those conversations will continue as the organizations work toward bringing ELYSA into operation before the Oct. 1 deadline, he said.
Eventually, the ELYSA advisory board will appoint a voting member to the PHCSA board.
“I never thought it would work this well,” PHCSA board member Tom McKone admitted.