Tennis players are still in the dark
CLEARWATER - Perhaps the city could install a swipe-card system at those tennis courts where the lights have been turned off. That way, players with preloaded cards could pick up some of the electricity costs. No, city officials said. Installing and maintaining such a system would be more expensive than turning the lights back on. Perhaps a cheaper pay-as-you go system, such as coin-operated lights, could be put in place. No, city officials said. Vandals would break into the machines for the coins.Perhaps, the tennis balls, as opposed to the courts, could be lit. City officials did not bother responding to that one. These were some of the proposals bandied about last week as the mayor, city manager and city council members listened to tennis players gripe about a decision to turn off lights at 24 of the city's 63 tennis courts to save $20,000 in electricity costs. The group had submitted a petition with 760 signatures. But the council did not decide to turn the lights back on at all of those courts. Instead, at the suggestion of Mayor Frank Hibbard, the council decided to have the lights turned back on at one location, Woodgate Park, which has two tennis courts. The general area where Woodgate Park is located, in northeast Clearwater, was underrepresented as far as lit tennis courts go, he said. "I did have a problem with the distribution of the courts," Hibbard said. "I don't think we need to turn on all 24. I think there ought to be some geographic equity as to where we shut the lights off." Tennis aficionados argued they were unfairly targeted when the Parks and Recreation Department worked to shave $1 million from its budget. But City officials said soccer and softball fields had been shut down and shuffleboard players had taken a hit in years past, before the tennis players did. "We're probably within a couple of years of everyone's ox being gored," said Vice Mayor John Doran. Like many cities, Clearwater has been wrestling with how to maintain services while revenue plummets, in large part due to dwindling property taxes. A $5 million shortfall is projected for next year, with property values dropping another 7 percent. "We've been cutting department expenses for three or four years," said Councilman George Cretekos. "A lot of these cuts haven't been recognized because staff has done such a good job of taking care of the basic needs of our residents. After four years of cuts you haven't seen, we are now at the point of making cuts you feel." City Manager Bill Horne agreed to find the money to light Woodgate, but he asked that the issue of lighted tennis courts not be revisited until the next budget cycle. Horne said he told city leaders that they could pull $20,000 out of the city's reserves to pay for the lighting, "and everyone goes to sleep again." But, he added, the mayor and council didn't think that was financially wise, and he complimented them for that stance. "It's hard to continue to offer you the services you are accustomed to and reduce the tax burden," Horne said. "Next year, as city manager, I cannot promise that your lighting won't be impacted."