Click photo to enlarge
Bodi jumps for the stick held by his owner, Kimberly Hartman, at Dogbone Meadow in Novato. The dog park could be the first 'pay to play' park in Marin as the city proposes a $75 annual user fee.
Linda Deatrick said she can't put into polite words the reaction her late husband would have had to a proposed $75 annual users fee for Novato's dog park.

Chuck Deatrick was the unofficial "mayor" of Dogbone Meadow and led volunteer efforts when the park was built in the early 2000s. He died in September 2007 at age 72 after heart surgery.

"He just lived at that park," Linda Deatrick said. "He was there just about every day with a shovel in his hands. That place was built on people's sweat. He would be É I can't even say it."

Novato, which is deep into devising ways to cut its $3 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, could become the first city in Marin to impose a "pay to play" fee for its public dog park.

Prior to a final vote on the 2009-10 budget in June, the Novato City Council is considering user fees for a variety of city facilities to avoid permanent closure. At a financial workshop last Monday, the council discussed a street leasing fee for money-making events on blocked-off streets - although the majority of the council was not in favor. The Hamilton Skate Park could be targeted for fees as well.

The city's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department is sweating over pressure to cut its budget. The department's director, Pam Shinault, has been forced to hack $481,033 from an annual budget of about $4 million and find new sources of revenue to keep programs running.

The dog park, situated on Novato Boulevard in undeveloped O'Hair Park, has an annual maintenance budget of about $10,000 to $15,000 that covers grass cutting, trash removal, landscaping and water usage, Shinault said.

"Most people don't see that we're having difficulty in this city with our money issues," Councilwoman Madeline Kellner said. "People are just not aware. We're asking people to help us here. But anytime you take something that's been free and start charging for it, people are going to get upset."

Shinault said the city would like to have a dog park membership program up and running by July 1. If at least 67 people are willing to pay $75 for annual dog park membership, the parks department would reach its goal of $5,000 in revenue for the next fiscal year. Or, a generous resident or local business could step up with a sponsorship offer.

"That would save me a lot of work," Shinault said.

The city is seeking corporate sponsorships to help pay for the Hamilton Pool, which is undergoing a renovation. A similar sponsorship could work for the dog park, although Shinault cautioned that "it needs to be a consistent source of revenue. Sometimes corporate sponsorships are one-shot wonders."

Regular users of the dog park said rumors of a fee have already created ill will with the city, and fewer people are using the park.

Margaret Nelson, a legal secretary who has a German shepherd/boxer mix, said she probably wouldn't be willing to pay the fee even though "I probably wouldn't have a social life without the dog park."

"It's just a bad idea," she said. "There's no way they should be doing this. Most of the dogs out there are rescue dogs, so we feel as if we're already doing a public service for the community. Now they want to penalize us. Why single us out?"

Shinault said no group is being singled out; about 50 expense reductions have been necessary in the parks budget in the past year affecting a variety of groups.

She said the process of payment for dog park membership is a work in progress; most likely a key access card would be issued to unlock a new gate. There would be no way to stop people who would prop open the gate or even hop the fence that surrounds the park.

"At this point we're hoping that the honor system is a good system," Shinault said. "We hope people will be good citizens and use it appropriately and not abuse it. We're not thinking about stationing police out there or anything."

Dog owners who elect to take their pets elsewhere need to be reminded that school property is not an option, said Novato schools Superintendent Jan La Torre-Derby. The honor system there has not worked well; owners run their dogs off leash at local school yards, especially after school and on weekends.

"We're not allowed to have them on our campuses," La Torre-Derby said. "If a kid gets bit, we're liable. If somebody contracts a disease from exposure to feces on the grass, we're liable. Even though we do see dogs on our campuses, they have to get shooed off. But it's very hard to police it."

Eileen Ziegenhagen, 75, said she remembers a donation box that used to be attached to the park's gate and thinks it would work better than a fee.

"I would be happy to drop $5 or $10 in there from time to time, and I think a lot of people would be willing to do that," said the owner of an Australian shepherd/border collie mix. "Even $50 would be way too much (for a fee). It would completely spoil it."

At San Rafael's Field of Dogs, near the Marin Civic Center, organizers held a dinner and auction for many years and raised about $5,000 each time, according to longtime volunteer Rita Metz.

"It worked well and was a lot of fun," she said. "It's too bad we don't do it anymore. If they have dedicated volunteers up there, it could work and you could forget about the user fee. The problem with (Novato's proposal) is how the heck are you going to enforce it?"

Annie Ramos, another park regular, said she's heard a lot of "bitching" about the pending fees. She said a steady group of people and their dogs head to the park in the late afternoon and sometimes stay until sundown, chatting while the dogs play. It has become as important a gathering place for humans as it is for dogs, she said.

"You have a lot of lonely people who have animals and they want a safe place to go to socialize," Ramos said. "There's a group that supports each other, especially other women - some of whom have had really crappy lives. The park has been a fabulous place for them."

SOUND OFF

To share your thoughts about a fee system for usage of Dogbone Meadow dog park, e-mail the Novato Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department at prcs@ci.novato.ca.us


Read more Novato stories at the IJ's Novato section.

Contact Brent Ainsworth via e-mail at bainsworth@marinij.com