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Drops in a bucket: City park open to all faces deluge of accounting, funding issues

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By Nancy Kennedy

INVERNESS — In the saga of Whispering Pines Park and the ongoing tensions between county and city governments over the county’s $300,000 annual payment, think of a set of estranged parents driving their kids to Little League practice, Mom and Dad in the front seat squabbling over money.

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Parent 1: “If you expect me to pay 90 percent of your budget, I want to know what you’re doing with the money.”

Parent 2: “You’ve never asked me before, and I don’t think I have to tell you what I do with it. They’re your kids, you know.”

Parent 1: “I know they’re my kids. That’s why I deserve to know what my money’s going for.”

Parent 2: “You should trust me.”

Silence.

Parent 1: “I’m not going to pay you any more money until we have a written agreement.”

Silence.

Parent 1: “Oh, by the way: I’ve come into some financial difficulty and I might not be able to pay you anyway.”

Parent 2: “You’re springing this on me now? Well, with or without your money, these kids will be cared for. But that money’s not a gift, you know. It’s for your kids. You’re responsible to pay for their care.”

Meanwhile, as the car pulls into the park, the kids climb out and run off to ball practice, oblivious to what’s been going on with their parents — for now. In the end, it’s always the kids who get hurt.

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As 2013 begins, at issue is the funding of Whispering Pines Park in Inverness. The current operating budget for fiscal year 2012-13 is $754,282. Approximately $64,000 is anticipated to be generated through fees from the swimming pool, pavilion rental and other sources.

Since 1993, the county and the city of Inverness have shared equally in the park’s funding.

It’s only fair, said Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni, since 90 percent of the half-million annual park users are not city residents.

However, since 2008, the 50-50 split has been contentious.

As of Jan. 1, the city has not received the expected $300,000, which is less than half of the park’s annual budget.

“We are not troubled with such a large amount of users from outside the city, but not receiving offsetting funds to serve these people is problematic,” DiGiovanni said.

County Administrator Brad Thorpe said there’s a good reason why the city has not received the payment, and it’s been sitting on DiGiovanni’s desk since March 2012 — a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU), a document that basically states the county wants to know how its $300,000 is being spent.

“What the county is asking for are the particulars,” said Lindsay Ubinas, county government public information officer.

“Every time we’ve written a check, we don’t know what the money is being used for,” Ubinas said. “We don’t know if it’s going for cleaning up the ballfields or keeping the bathrooms clean or whatever. What Brad (Thorpe) is asking for is accountability for expenses, specifically related to the park. Brad has never heard a word back from Frank (DiGiovanni).”

DiGiovanni said, “They’ve made payments in the past without an MOU, why all of a sudden now? Nothing’s changed except now they’re changing the rules midstream.”

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Since 1979, the 290-acre Whispering Pines Park has been owned by the state of Florida and leased to the city of Inverness, which manages it.

In the early 1980s, the park was dedicated as a regional park, to be used by the entire county population.

In 1986, the county and the city of Inverness entered into an interlocal agreement. At that time, Inverness paid 70 percent of the park’s operating budget and the county paid 30 percent. Over the years, the county’s share incrementally increased and the city’s share decreased until 1993, when it reached 50-50, where it was expected to stay.

And it did for many years without any problems.

Then came 2008, and the status quo shifted.

The county proposed that it take over the management of Whispering Pines completely, which the city firmly rejected.

Then the county reduced its payment from $370,000 to $300,000, paying the $300,000 in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Since fiscal year 2012-2013, which began Oct. 1, the city has not received a payment, although it is allocated in the county’s budget.

The county allocates a total of $2.6 million for parks — 29 throughout the county, including Whispering Pines. Whispering Pines accounts for a little more than 13 percent of the $2.6 million.

Enter Progress Energy Florida and its surprise reduced tax payment to the county this past November to further complicate matters.

Even if the city of Inverness returns the MOU and agrees to its terms, the $300,000 may be delayed for one year, along with about eight other county budget adjustments, according to a county emergency action plan dated Dec. 3.

However, the underlying problem between county and city governments over park funding was there long before the Progress Energy monkey wrench. Currently, the governments are at a standstill — and meanwhile there are kids who want to play baseball and people who want to use the tennis courts and the recreation building. There’s a park that needs to be run.

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What would happen if?

What would the city of Inverness do if it never received any more money from the county?

“There are options that we can talk about,” said Cabot McBride, Inverness City Council president. “There are things we can do. I’m not saying I support these by any means, but we could start to have people pay for more of the services, raise revenue that way. Or we could decrease overall usage of the park, thereby decreasing expenses.

“In the final analysis, what we’re all going to be looking for is an option to keep the park operating ... but the thought of regular citizens who use the park having to come up with $300,000 in no way pleases me,” McBride said.

DiGiovanni said emphatically that the park or its regular users will not harmed.

“The preference should not be to cut park funding to an extent that penalizes people like Little League parents or youth programming,” he said. “Clearly, the loss of $300,000 is huge …  and not an amount that may just be absorbed.”

DiGiovanni went on to say that the city is looking into the possibility of corporate sponsorship, although he added that that may not materialize.

“We will engage open dialog with leagues and park users,” he said. “We will work to earn support of the community that’s served.”

At the Jan. 8 city council meeting, the topic of Whispering Pines will be discussed. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Inverness Government Center, 212 W. Main St., Inverness.

Also, Whispering Pines as a budget item will be a matter for discussion at the county commission meeting at 1 p.m. Jan. 8, at the county courthouse.

County Commission Chairman Joe Meek said one of his goals for 2013 is to work better with both cities, Inverness and Crystal River.

“One of the ways we can do that is to get an agreement with the city about Whispering Pines,” he said.

Meek added that the squabbling between the county and the city of Inverness is not helpful.

“It’s become a hindrance, and until it gets resolved it’s going to fester,” he said. “It’s time to put egos aside.”

Meek went on to say that from the county’s standpoint, it’s an issue of financial accountability.

“We’re spending all this money without any involvement,” he said. “But I believe all this can be resolved. I’m talking with Frank (DiGiovanni) and we’re going to see if we can find common ground and reach an agreement.”

Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy can be reached at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2927.